Why didn’t Russia include a large-scale amphibious landing in its invasion of Ukraine? Russia’s power in the Black Sea region seems to situate it well for just such an operation and Moscow has emphasized the development of its military capabilities in the Black Sea for years. The annexation of Crimea more than doubled its coastline along the body of water, and permanently secured its access to the strategic Sevastopol naval base. Russian modernization of its Black Sea Fleet has “shifted the military balance in the Black Sea region in its favor,” as one analyst has conservatively put it. Another was more direct, observing that Russia “possesses the Black Sea region’s dominant maritime military.”
So, when Russia launched its late-February invasion, clearly seeking to do so from as many directions as possible to overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses and enable quick thrusts toward strategically key terrain, why didn’t the world see ships disgorging Russian forces onto Ukrainian shores?
Reports of Amphibious Warfare’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
An observer might look at the overwhelming advantages Russian forces would have held during any fight along the Black Sea’s coastlines and interpret Moscow’s decision not to undertake a large-scale amphibious landing as just another sign that the days of ship-to-shore combat are a relic of the past. That observer would be in plentiful company.
In 2014, Zachary Keck argued in The Diplomat that “D-Day would fail today” because “modern defense technologies have made amphibious invasions much more difficult.” Four years before that, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the press, “Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings . . . are feasible.” But this is not just a twenty-first-century assessment. All the way back in 1949, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Omar Bradley famously told the House Armed Services Committee that “large-scale amphibious operations will never occur again.” Even earlier, in the wake of the amphibious disaster at Gallipoli, “the general conclusion [among military professionals] was that large scale amphibious operations against a defended shore, especially conducted in daylight, were almost certain to be suicidal.” The list of military thinkers who have doubted the efficacy of amphibious operations is long indeed.
Of course, what these signatories to so many death certificates of amphibious warfare also share is that time would prove them wrong. A generation after Gallipoli, World War II saw not just the Normandy invasion but also amphibious assaults from the Baltic Sea to Madagascar to Northeast Asia and the Aleutian Islands. Only a year after General Bradley’s congressional testimony, the 1st Marine Division with supporting Army units conducted its successful amphibious assault at Incheon in Korea.
Despite the naysayers, amphibious operations aren’t dead, and remain a key strategic and operational capability for major militaries around the world. The classic vision of an amphibious operation, the amphibious assault, is one of the most potent forcible entry tools available. So, while the ongoing war in Ukraine (and the lack of a major Russian amphibious operations—so far) offers lessons on the challenges of contemporary amphibious assaults, it also offers an opportunity to explore the conditions under which they can be undertaken successfully.
The Bear at Sea
Russia’s amphibious assault capability, while far smaller than that of the United States, is formidable. The Russian navy boasts dozens of amphibious assault ships of different sizes, and well-equipped naval infantry brigades that are considered among the Russian military’s elite formations. Russia’s naval infantry force fields five brigades plus additional battalions, which are organized similarly to motorized rifle units and are operationally subordinated to fleet commanders. In theory, Russian forces could mount brigade-sized landings with tanks and armored vehicles, supported by land-based fixed-wing and rotary-wing aviation. With that much combat power, the Ukrainian coastline seems almost beckoning.
The Russian navy has long been convinced of the importance of amphibious capability—it executed numerous amphibious operations during World War II as part of Russia’s campaign in Manchuria, in the Baltics, and along the Black Sea. Moscow tried to expand its capability several years ago with the purchase of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, which would have represented a significant upgrade over the older vessels the Russian navy operates. But the deal fell through after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. One of the major gaps in Russian amphibious capability is aviation, and the Mistrals would have given the Russian navy a new platform to launch amphibious air assaults from. During the conflict so far, Russian forces have launched air operations from Crimea, using it as a de facto aircraft carrier.
Indeed, Russian prewar transfers and maneuvers provided a host of warnings that a Russian amphibious assault was in the offing. Since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russian forces have repeatedly exercised for an amphibious assault in the Black Sea. In November 2021, Ukrainian military intelligence warned of a Russian amphibious assault near the Ukrainian coastal city of Odesa. In January, a flurry of commentary covered the transit of six amphibious assault ships from their Baltic Sea base in Kaliningrad to the Black Sea, potentially loaded with two battalion tactical groups of elite Russian naval infantry and their armored vehicles. Smaller Russian ships, including amphibious vessels, were also moved to the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea last year.
And yet there has been no major amphibious operation so far in Ukraine. There have, however, been minor operations that have incorporated amphibious capabilities. It is important to note that although large-scale amphibious landings intended to have strategic impacts in war—like the D-Day landings—receive disproportionate historical attention, smaller actions aimed at tactical effects can also be launched amphibiously. Russia has recent experience with such operations. Russian naval infantry conducted an uncontested landing from three ships into Abkhazia, a Georgian region under separatist control, before marching into Georgia proper during the 2008 war. Even in the current war, although reports have been vague, it appears that Russian forces conducted a small-scale, uncontested amphibious landing near Mariupol at the beginning of the conflict. Since then, Russian naval infantry forces have been engaged in fighting in the south, particularly in and around Mariupol, where the deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was reportedly killed in action. Russian naval forces also seized Snake Island, after being confronted by Ukrainian defenders who famously sent a courageous reply to the invaders’ demand that the garrison surrender: “Go f—k yourself.” These minor operations are, so far, the only look we have at the application of Russian amphibious capability in the current conflict.
History, however, also lends itself to assessing how amphibious capabilities feature in Russian military culture. Soviet doctrine in World War II, which seems to remain a major focal point of Russian military planning, offered several types of amphibious operations, ranging from strategic landings to those of a tactical nature. Overall, the Soviets conducted more than one hundred amphibious landings during World War II, including several from the Black Sea, with varying degrees of success. The most frequently practiced was one that inserted small units—companies or battalions—behind German lines to pin down enemy forces, disrupt enemy rear areas, and secure objectives ahead of the advancing land forces. Amphibious operations, in and of themselves, were rarely more than an advance operation for a larger ground push. It is these small-scale, tactical landings that are most likely in Ukraine, and would be intended to support larger ground operations. These landings could help a coastal axis of advance, for example, bypassing tough Ukrainian defensive positions.
Amphibious landings of any size, though, face challenges, several of which would be on particular display in Ukraine and would make a Russian amphibious assault there far from a guaranteed success. Multiple obstacles stand in such an assault’s way before forces even cross the beachhead. Everything from bad weather and limited suitable landing zones to rigid Ukrainian defenses and urbanization up to the beach poses threats to potential Russian success. One analysis in Proceedings concluded:
Vagaries of weather and sea conditions, restrictions of hydrography and topography, limitations of amphibious lift, difficulties maintaining air superiority, and challenges of logistics all point to the risky nature of any Russian amphibious operation in the Black Sea.
The objective for a major Russian amphibious assault would likely be the port city of Odesa, also the third-largest city in Ukraine. Seizing Odesa would effectively cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and also help Russian forces in Crimea link up with Russian forces in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria. However, Odesa is well defended, and citizens have been supporting local authorities in constructing local defenses and mining the beaches. Even a successful amphibious assault would quickly devolve into costly urban combat for the attackers.
The Russian navy has also suffered from readiness and equipment issues for years. The Admiral Kuznetsov, its only aircraft carrier, suffered a major fire in 2019 and has been “plagued by breakdowns and setbacks since its launch in 1985.” While the United States might debate the efficacy of multiple carrier strike groups, the lack of any in Russia’s inventory hampers its ability to conduct amphibious operations without dedicated land-based aircraft in support.
Of course, even if the challenges posed by the environment and the assaulting military’s organic limitations are overcome, there are still defenders to account for, and since Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian forces have been successful in attacking Russian vessels.
Ukrainian coastal defense forces made international headlines recently when they reportedly sunk the Russian cruiser Moskva. Russian officials assert that the vessel was damaged by a fire and explosion unrelated to Ukrainian attacks. Ukrainian officials claimed the ship was sunk by their domestically produced Neptune antiship missile, and potentially in coordination with a Bayraktar TB2 drone, which would be a major development in coastal defense. While the Moskva would not have been directly involved in an amphibious operation, its loss will be felt by the Russian navy and is likely to make Russian ships significantly more cautious operating in the Black Sea. In War on the Rocks, BJ Armstrong argued that the sinking of the Moskva may be a turning point, with Russian naval forces deciding to stay far away from the Ukrainian coast, and that it’s possible Ukrainian forces could even threaten Sevastopol.
The Ukrainian military also claimed it damaged a modern Russian missile-armed patrol boat, the Vasily Bykov, with BM-21 Grad 122-millimeter multiple-launch rocket systems. The attack is significant because the BM-21 is not a dedicated antiship platform, suggesting the Ukrainians have repurposed some of their artillery in an antiship role. Pairing the BM-21 with drones, like the Turkish-made Bayraktar that has been successful in striking ground targets, could further improve Ukrainian coastal defenses. Ukraine could also use some of its cannon artillery in a coastal defense role—an innovation US Marines recently experimented with, using their 155-millimeter howitzers to engage targets off the coast of North Carolina.
In late March, the Ukrainian military also claimed to have attacked and sunk a Russian landing ship in Berdyansk, a Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov that was captured by Russian forces earlier in the conflict, while the ship was pier side. The ship’s demise has been confirmed by satellite imagery and the Pentagon. While the method of attack remains unknown, these losses make clear that even against a practically nonexistent Ukrainian navy, Russian amphibious forces are still under threat in the Black Sea.
As Ukrainian forces have put US-provided weapons to use shooting down Russian aircraft and destroying Russian armored vehicles, there have also been calls to provide Ukraine with antiship missiles. US officials have indicated they are “consulting with allies on providing anti-ship missiles to Ukraine,” and there are reports that the United Kingdom may supply Harpoon antiship missiles. Providing more of these weapons would be a major threat to Russian naval vessels, even in small numbers.
Even less advanced antiship missiles could also be effective against Russian ships. Furthermore, modern warships are vulnerable to attacks by weapons with even small payloads, like loitering munitions, given that they strike sensitive equipment like radars and communications, and the United States has already pledged to deliver at least one hundred Switchblade loitering munitions to Ukraine.
Finally, there are also cruder threats to Russian naval vessels, like naval mines. The Turkish military recently neutralized a pair of old mines floating near the Bosporus. Russian sources alleged the mines were Ukrainian and had broken free of defenses near Odesa, but the Ukrainian government dismissed the accusation as disinformation. In any case, the danger of naval mines to a Russian amphibious assault is significant.
Russian Amphibious Forces Moving Forward
So far, Russian forces have not conducted a large amphibious landing. Of course, it’s impossible to know to what degree Russian leaders considered doing so. In a possible gaffe, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was pictured with a map that seemed to show an amphibious landing near Odesa, and there have been unconfirmed reports that an amphibious landing ordered by the Russian military was canceled.
Still, that does not mean amphibious operations will not play a role in Russia’s war effort going forward. Again, there have been credible reports of small, uncontested landings of Russian naval infantry and reconnaissance forces (although early reports that they were “putting potentially thousands of naval infantry ashore” on February 25 seem to have been an exaggeration). It does not rule out a more ambitious operation in the future. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters in March that it’s “difficult to know” what Russia is planning for its amphibious forces but that two possibilities were an assault on Odesa or a “diversionary tactic.”
Kirby’s comments highlight one of the most important features of amphibious capabilities—their sheer flexibility and the wide range of effects they can achieve. Amphibious forces need not just concentrate on the assault. Russian amphibious ships could be used not to land troops on a contested shore but as a logistics connector to make up for a lack of trucks and rail lines needed to sustain Russian forces. Indeed, this seems to be happening already, as Russian forces have faced significant logistical difficulties from the beginning of the conflict. Credence was given to this use of the amphibious fleet when the Japanese government announced it spotted a group of four Russian amphibious ships loaded with trucks, likely shifting equipment from the Russian Far East to make up for combat losses in Ukraine.
Russia’s amphibious forces could also be employed as a strategic reserve to reinforce land forces along the southern axis of attack. Or they could be used in a bid to escalate or open a new theater in the conflict. They could also be used to insert and extract smaller units or special operations forces for raids and reconnaissance missions along Ukraine’s southern coast.
Ultimately, Russian amphibious forces are valuable even without doing much. As long as they are in the region, the threat of an amphibious operation is enough to require Ukrainian attention. Their presence forces a portion of Ukraine’s limited resources to be devoted to preparing to face an amphibious assault—on Odesa, for example—that may or may not happen. During the First Gulf War, US Marines achieved a similar effect by conducting numerous amphibious demonstrations that tied down multiple Iraqi divisions without ever coming ashore. As retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander, remarked, “The Russian Black Sea fleet is essentially a holding force directed against the Ukrainian military south of Ukraine.”
Whatever happens, Russia’s apparent hesitation to launch a large-scale amphibious assault as part of its initial invasion of Ukraine is not indicative of such operations’ waning utility. On the contrary, the invasion continues to validate the importance of amphibious capability, while simultaneously providing examples of the risk inherent to amphibious operations and adding a degree of granularity regarding the full range of effects amphibious capabilities can be used to produce. They remain valuable because they give commanders unmatched flexibility. Military professionals should therefore be watching the Ukrainian coast closely for lessons to inform their own thinking about the role amphibious capabilities can play in an era when large-scale combat operations have returned to center stage. The US Marine Corps, especially, in the middle of its own force redesign, should pay attention to the capability requirements and ideal application of a modern amphibious force.
Captain Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer at the Colombian Naval Academy in Cartagena, Colombia. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Modern War and a nonresident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative. He has written numerous articles for publications like War on the Rocks, Proceedings, and the Marine Corps Gazette.
Timothy Heck is the deputy editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is an artillery officer in the US Marine Corps Reserve, currently assigned as a joint historian with Marine Corps History Division. He holds a BA in American Studies from Georgetown University and an MA in War in the Modern World from King’s College London. He is coeditor of On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Russian Ministry of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons