Russia picked the Black Sea naval fight it's now losing to Ukraine, which doesn't even have a fleet of its own

  • Russia in July militarized the Black Sea, threatening commercial ships and Ukraine's ports.

  • Lacking major warships, Ukraine has turned to sea drones and cruise missiles to respond.

  • Kyiv's forces have used these weapons to increase attacks on high-profile Black Sea Fleet targets.

When Russia announced its intentions to militarize the Black Sea in July, Moscow tried to dominate the waters by issuing a sweeping threat to civilian ships transiting the waters: proceed and we'll consider you party to the war.

Ukraine, on the other hand, doesn't have much of a navy, having scuttled its last major warship at the start of the conflict to keep it from falling into Russian hands. But in the weeks since Russia's proclamation, Ukraine has completely flipped the script on Moscow by ramping up attacks on its Black Sea Fleet, including cruise missile strikes on a key shipyard and the fleet's headquarters and sea drone assaults on warships in port. Collectively, these attacks have damaged and destroyed several vessels, killed and injured dozens of military personnel, and threatened to disrupt Russian naval logistics and operations.

"The recent strikes on the Black Sea Fleet are another example of how Ukraine retains the initiative," Adm. Tony Radakin, Britain's chief of the defense staff, said this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin "has lost control of the war he started."

After withdrawing from the United Nations-brokered Black Sea grain deal in July, Russia announced that it would consider any ships in the region as potential carriers of military cargo aiding Kyiv in the fight. Moscow then immediately started increasing attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets along the Black Sea, including the targeting of ports and food storage facilities.

"We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks," a top White House official said at the time.

Russian Black Sea fleet
Russia's Black Sea Fleet warships take part in the Navy Day celebrations in the port city of Novorossiysk on July 30, 2023.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

It was several weeks before Russia appeared to follow through on its threats when, in mid-August, it carried out a helicopter raid of a Palau-flagged cargo ship. Russian forces stormed the bridge and interrogated the crew, searching for what Moscow said was "prohibited goods," but ultimately the ship was allowed to keep sailing into a Ukrainian port.

In a tremendous escalation several days later, a missile carrier belonging to the Black Sea Fleet fired two Kalibr cruise missiles at a Liberian-flagged cargo ship moored at a port in Odesa. Britain's foreign office said Ukraine's air-defense systems "successfully shot down" the missiles, but the attempted strike, nevertheless, marked the most serious attack on a civilian vessel since Russia withdrew from the grain deal.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has taken the fight right back to Russia, and to compensate for its lack of a proper navy, it's turned to uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) — or sea drones — to wreak havoc on the Black Sea Fleet. Leadership in Kyiv has sought to prioritize developing what they call "the formation of the world's first naval fleet of drones."

Early August featured two major sea drone attacks: the first targeted the Russian port of Novorossiysk, which damaged the landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak, and shortly after that, the Russian merchant tanker Sig was "attacked and disabled" near the Kerch Strait, according to intelligence shared by Britain's defense ministry. Experts have described these cheap, explosive, and remotely operated drones as being able to give Ukraine an "asymmetric advantage" against Russia, which hasn't yet figured out how to consistently stop the systems.

To complement the threat posed by its sea drones, Ukraine's military has also turned to its arsenal of long-range Western-made cruise missiles like the UK-provided Storm Shadow to pound targets belonging to the Black Sea Fleet in its home of Sevastopol, which is located on the southwestern edge of the occupied Crimean peninsula.

A Ukrainian surface drone called "Sea Baby."
A Ukrainian surface drone called "Sea Baby."Screengrab via the Security Service of Ukraine Telegram

A September 13 attack on a shipyard there severely damaged a landing vessel and a submarine that were undergoing repairs at the time. Ukraine mocked Russia for losing a submarine to a country "without many warships" as experts said the strikes marked a tremendous blow to Russian maritime logistics and will for quite some time render the critical dry dock inoperable.Western intelligence assessed the damage will pose a maintenance challenge for the Black Sea Fleet, especially considering the lack of suitable alternative yards and backlogs elsewhere.

A little over a week after the shipyard attack, Ukraine bombarded the nearby headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet during a meeting of Russia's naval leadership. Ukraine's Special Operations Forces claimed nearly three dozen people were killed in the attack, and over 100 others were injured.

John Harvey Jr., a retired US Navy admiral who previously oversaw US Fleet Forces Command, said the Russians continue to show a lack of caution and awareness with where they place high-value targets like ships, aircraft, and personnel, and he said it was surprising to see Moscow hold an important meeting in such an obvious location.

The attack is "probably a pretty significant step backwards for them and their control of near-term operations in the Black Sea," he told Insider.

During the war, the Black Sea Fleet has been disrupting Ukrainian exports and launching missile attacks on military and civilian targets on land, but these missions have steadily become more complicated. Kyiv's military said it recently established a new shipping corridor in the Black Sea so it can avoid Russian blockades and move cargo, which is critical for its economy.

The Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol after a Ukrainian missile strike on Friday afternoon.
Photos and videos showed the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters up in flames after a devastating missile strike.Emergency Sevastopol/Telegram

Black Sea Fleet targets in Crimea have been within striking distance of some of Ukraine's Western-made cruise missiles for several months, and the problem could get worse for Moscow in the future. The Biden administration is reportedly slated to send Kyiv missiles that would extend the range and lethality of its arsenal of the US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) by way of the much-sought-after MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS. These could, however, be tasked with taking out other targets.

Harvey said it appears as though Russia has been "very slow to react to the growing compromise" of its overall force layout in Crimea and "what that means for them to be able to sustain a fleet at sea." He said that Moscow is either going to come up with a different fundamental plan of how to mitigate this exposure or just accept living with these losses.

Russia has also seemingly demonstrated poor judgment in assessing Ukraine's capacity to actually carry out such impactful strikes on Black Sea Fleet targets, Harvey said. In other words, Moscow has a "failure of imagination" that Kyiv can put several pieces together to stage successful attacks.

"The Ukrainians are learning to adapt to a maritime theater and having a significant impact on the Black Sea Fleet without having a fleet," he said. "What you're seeing is going to be just the tip of the iceberg here in terms of a campaign that will grow steadily — not just in importance, but also in size."

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