Six Russian Amphibious Landing Ships Are Now Headed Into The Black Sea (Updated)
There was speculation for weeks that six Russian landing ships might enter the Black Sea as part of a buildup around Ukraine. Now we know the answer.
Three Russian Navy amphibious warfare ships are currently headed for the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and another trio is expected to follow them tomorrow. These six vessels left the Baltic Sea region in January and it has been postulated since then that the Black Sea might be their final destination. Once there, these landing ships would be in an ideal position to support amphibious options as part of a potential new Russian incursion into Ukraine.
The Project 775 Ropucha class amphibious warfare ships Kaliningrad, Korolev, and Minsk, all from the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet, were observed sailing through the Dardanelles earlier today. The Dardanelles links the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, from where ships can then transit another strait, the Bosphorus, into the Black Sea. Russia's Ministry of Defense says that two more Ropuchas, as well as the Project 11711
Ivan Gren class landing ship Pyotr Morgunov, which are all assigned to the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet, will begin their transit tomorrow, according to a report from Interfax.
All six of these ships left the Baltic Sea in January and had entered the western end of the Mediterranean by the end of that month. The vessels stopped at the Russian Navy's base in Tartus, Syria, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, last week.
Back in January, the Russian Ministry of Defense had said that these landing ships were headed for exercises in the Mediterranean, where other Russian Navy vessels have converged in recent weeks. This is officially one component of a series of naval drills that are set to be held around the world involving dozens of warships, as well as aircraft.
The decision now to send these amphibious warfare ships into the Black Sea can only raise questions about what the Kremlin's actual plan for them might be. The Ropucha and Ivan Gren class ships can both carry significant numbers of tanks, other armored vehicles, and troops, as well as other cargo, and bring it right to a beachhead. What, if anything, these six ships might be bringing into the Black Sea is unclear.
It has long been suggested that these amphibious warfare ships may actually be part of a larger Russian military buildup along that country's borders with Ukraine, which started last year and is ongoing. The Kremlin is also pouring forces into neighboring Belarus, some of which are seen in the video below. All of this is ostensibly part of a series of large-scale drills, but there are persistent concerns that this could be a cover to get units into position for a new invasion of Ukraine sometime in the near term. Starting in 2014, Russian and Russian-backed forces have occupied Ukraine's Crimea region and parts of the eastern part of that country, and the two sides have been engaged in a low-level conflict ever since.
The landing ships would add valuable amphibious capacity to that already found within Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which also has an array of other warships and submarines that could support a larger operation targeting Ukraine from the south. Once these six additional ships arrive, there will be nine Ropuchas and the Ivan Gren class landing ship, along with three smaller Project 1171 Tapir class landing ships, also known as Alligator class vessels. A number of smaller landing craft are based in the region, as well.
While the prevailing consensus remains that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not made a final decision about whether or not to launch a new military intervention into Ukraine, having these ships in place now could be particularly important. An international agreement known as the Montreux Convention governs the movement of military vessels in and out of the Black Sea via the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, both of which are entirely under the control of Turkey, a NATO member.
Under the Montreux Convention, “Turkey is authorized to close the straits to all foreign warships in wartime or when it is threatened by aggression," Yoruk Isik, an Instabul-based geopolitical analyst and ship spotter, who was first to post pictures of three Ropuchas entering the Dardanelles today, told Reuters. "Also, it is authorized to refuse transit to merchant ships belonging to countries at war with Turkey."
The movement of the landing ships into the Black Sea also comes amid a flurry of NATO deployments to the region, as well as elsewhere in Europe. The alliance says those movements are intended to reassure its members, especially those along Russia's periphery, and deter the Kremlin from engaging in new military action against Ukraine.
Whether or not Putin ultimately decides to launch a new large-scale operation against Ukraine very much remains to be seen. Just today, French officials said that the Russian President, following a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, had agreed to not conduct any new "military initiatives” targeting Ukraine and to withdraw Russian forces from Belarus at the conclusion of the exercises there. However, The Kremlin's exact definition of "military initiatives" in this instance and what it would consider to be a withdrawal from Belarus are unclear. After another worrisome buildup of Russian forces near the country's borders with Ukraine last year, a portion of the Russian troops withdrew, but some stayed and stockpiles of equipment also remained in place.
Putin also had some harsh words for a journalist in response to questions about the current geopolitical situation during a press conference alongside Macron. "Do you want war between France and Russia?!… But that will be the case!" he said.
No matter how the crisis surrounding Ukraine continues to evolve in the coming days and weeks, six additional Russian Navy landing ships will soon join a host of other military assets that are well-positioned in the region to support a possible new Russian invasion, if or when the time comes.
Update 6:20 PM EST:
Yoruk Isik has now posted pictures on Twitter showing the three Ropucha class landing ships that transited the Dardanelles earlier today passing through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea.
As had been previously been reported would be the case, the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet's two Ropucha class landing ships, the Georgy Pobedonosets and the Olenegorsky Gornyak, along with the Ivan Gren class Pyotr Morgunov, passed through the Dardanelles today on their way to the Black Sea.
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