Friday, August 15, 2008

Inside the Battle for the Black Sea

By Noah Shachtman for Wired Magazine

This is the second post from naval blogger Galrahn. Go check out his site,
Information Dissemination, when you're done here.

While most of the world has focused primarily on the ground conflict in Georgia, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been active off the coast. By now, you may have heard some isolated reports -- 4000 troops landed by sea at Ochamchire, a battle resulting in a Georgian coast guard ship sunk, and even claims by Georgia of minefields laid off the Georgian coast. Details have been hard to come by. But, piecing together the analysis and reporting, one can get a picture of some of these events.

While the speed of the Russian Army's response grabbed the attention of western observers, the fast response by the Russian Navy has been quite remarkable, too. The war started on Friday August 8th; the Black Sea Fleet was reported to arrive off the coast of Georgia on Saturday August 9th. That's pretty impressive, considering it is about 400 nautical miles from Sevastopol to Ochamchire. While the Moskva, Smetlivy, Muromets, and Aleksandrovets can make good speed and make the trip quickly, those ships sailed from Sevastopol with an assortment of support vessels that could only make 12-16 knots, at best. Simple math reveals that would make it a 25 hour trip, meaning the ships would have had to put to sea almost immediately after the fighting began. For any fleet to deploy that quickly is extraordinary readiness.

Then, on the early morning of August 10th, there was a battle at sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was engaged by four Georgian coast guard vessels, while conducting landing operations in Ochamchire. The Russians claimed to sink one ship, and the day after the battle the Moskva was reported to be in the Russian port of Novorossiysk.

New details have emerged that shed a bit of light on the action. A sailor interviewed in the Sevastopol on Wednesday gave the local press his recollection of the action. Here's my amateur translation:

"We took up station guarding the opposed landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four high speed targets were detected. We sent out an IFF signal and the targets didn't react. Receiving a command from the flagship, we got into formation and right at that moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the ship formation and flagship. The cruiser was damaged and a small fire broke out aboard. Then, fearing for seaworthiness, the flagship withdrew from the firing area." - the sailor said.

"Right then the small missile boats clearly fired," the participant continued. "Taking up position, our MRK launched a "Malakhit" (SS-N-9) anti-surface missile, which literally cut the lead ship, the Tbilisi, to ribbons. After that, fire was shifted to the rest of the Georgian ships. Another ship was damaged, we couldn't finish it off, allowing it to leave the scene under its own power."

It's a bit of a questionable story. However, the sailor interviewed was appraently from the MRK Mirazh (617, project 12341, NATO - Nanuchka III). Why does that matter? Because the MRK Mirazh is the ship Russia has credited with the attack. Her Captain, Ivan Dubik, was reported to be in the Kremlin on Thursday accepting congratulations.

Some of the details of the sailor's story are slightly inaccurate -- call it fog of war. The Georgian ship sunk was not the Tbilisi, as the sailor suggests. Rather it was the Georgian patrol boat P-21 Georgy Toreli. A night battle in the littoral, the Georgians armed only with guns, yet the little flotilla of four was able to get in close to Moskva and start a little fire. Covering its withdraw, the Mirazh missile boat is reported to have sunk the ship in only 90 seconds in what was reported as 300 meters of water.

According to Al Jazeera, the Coast Guard base in Poti was attacked with artillery on Wednesday after the cease-fire, destroying the rest of the coast guard ships in port. The Tbilisi, which was reported to be in bad condition prior to the war, was sunk in that attack.

As for the 4000 troops? All indications are the Russian Navy reportedly used three amphibious ships to ferry the 4000 paratroopers from Novorossiysk-- reportedly without vehicles. Recent analysis tends to imply the vehicles came separately -- by rail.

Note: I would make two small comments here:

a) There appears to have been at least one other, second, Georgian ship sunk by the Russians while at sea. My guess is that is was sunk in another incident.
b) There are some indications that the ships in the port of Poti were not destroyed by artillery fire, but by Russian demolition teams (the Russians were already in control of Poti when the rest of the ships were destroyed).

The Saker