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Ben Hodges, the former commander of American forces in Europe and current security expert, has been warning for years: “We must not allow Putin to turn the Black Sea into a Russian inland lake.” Since the attack on Ukraine, the grumpy general has been more convinced than ever that “the fate of the West” could be decided in the region. It is high time for the USA and NATO to “come into play” there.

Recently there have been increasing signs that the American’s warnings are finally being heard. While the whole world is analyzing the Ukrainian army’s slow gains in territory in the occupied areas in the south, at the same time a lot of strategic things are happening at sea away from the general public: the military situation on the Black Sea has changed massively in the last few weeks – with significant political and long-term consequences economic consequences.

It all started on October 29 last year with an unexpected attack on Russian warships in the harbor of the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea – an attack with prototypes of a new, self-developed war device: remote-controlled ship drones with a huge explosive charge in their bows. Since then, the missions with the five to six meter long, canoe-shaped, mostly gray ship drones have not stopped. The Magura V5, the latest model from the 385th Separate Marine Brigade, carries 300 kilograms of explosives over 800 kilometers to the target and roars away from all Russian warships at speeds of up to 42 knots (77 kilometers per hour).

The drones have been used at least twelve times since then – including in July in another attack on the strategically crucial Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia’s Krasnodar region with Crimea. On August 5, a Magura V5 tore an eight-meter hole in the side of the Russian tanker Sig, which was about to land gasoline for Vladimir Putin’s troops in Crimea. Since then, there has been fear on the Russian side.

Kyrylo Budanov, major general and head of Ukrainian military intelligence, speaks of a breakthrough: Together with Western anti-ship missiles of the Harpoon type, the new naval weapons are “paralyzing the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”

There may be hope there, but in fact the large sea area west of Crimea and south of Odessa is turning into a no-go area for Putin’s warships. And the dangers for every Russian shipping movement in the eastern waters of the Black Sea are also growing: Ukraine is currently testing prototypes of an underwater drone called Maritschka (in German: Mariechen), which could finally break Russia’s dominance at sea. Putin’s fleet does not yet have any comparable weapons systems and no means of effectively combating swarms of ship-borne drones.

This reduces Putin’s blackmail potential for continuing to threaten the global community with hunger. At the end of July, the so-called grain agreement, which allowed free passage to Ukrainian ports, expired. But contrary to what was initially thought, Putin cannot force concessions to extend the agreement. Instead, the first ships are leaving Ukrainian ports without Russian non-aggression guarantees. The distance between Odessa and Romanian territorial waters is less than 200 kilometers – and the route along the Ukrainian coast is becoming increasingly better protected. In mid-September, Romania, Ukraine and the USA started joint military exercises in the Black Sea and Danube Delta. A Russian attack on Western ships in this area would be tantamount to a strike against NATO – with military consequences that Putin must avoid at all costs. The USA has been flying increased observation missions in this area for months, sending a strong signal to Moscow.

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