Ukraine claims to have sunk Russian warship in occupied Crimea

Ukraine has sunk a Russian warship near the Kerch strait in occupied Crimea in a further blow to Moscow’s naval power and its control over the Black Sea, as The Hague accused two senior Russian commanders of carrying out war crimes.

Kyiv’s military intelligence agency said it attacked the Sergei Kotov in early on Tuesday using naval drones. The vessel, which was on patrol, suffered damage to the stern, right and left sides, then sank, claimed the agency, known as the HUR.

Dramatic video footage appeared to confirm this version of events. It showed kamikaze drones closing in on the vessel, seen in ghostly silhouette. One hits its hull and there is a large explosion. More drones then target the jagged hole caused by the first impact. There are further detonations, according to images shared by Ukraine’s Group 13 special unit.

A second video published by pro-Kremlin channels records a major incident at sea. Gunfire and bright flashes can be seen as the ship apparently opens fire on the drones from a turret-mounted naval gun. There are loud booms and orange explosions.

Ukrainian military intelligence said seven Russian sailors drowned in the attack and six were injured. A further 52 crew members were “probably” evacuated from the stricken vessel, it suggested.

The intelligence agency released an intercepted conversation in which a Russian commander described the sinking as “a tragic night event”. The unnamed officer said that at 00.50am five “unmanned motor boats” approached the Sergei Kotov. The patrol ship was warned of an impending drone attack and spent 40 minutes “fighting” back. A Russian Ka-29 transport and combat helicopter on the ship’s deck was lost when it sank, the commander said.

The conversation could not be verified. The HUR said its operation was carefully planned and carried out with Ukraine’s naval forces and the digital transformation ministry. “The cost of the sunken ship is about $65m,” it said.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the international criminal court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for two top Russian commanders, Sergei Kobylash and Viktor Sokolov, who are accused of war crimes. The ICC said they were suspected of directing missile strikes between October 2022 and March 2023 against Ukraine’s national energy infrastructure.

The Kremlin’s winter campaign crippled the Ukrainian grid, causing widespread blackouts and leaving millions of civilians in the dark, without light and heating. The ICC has previously issued warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for their alleged role in the abduction of Ukrainian children.

Kobylash, 58, was commander at the time of the so-called long-range aviation of the Russian air force. Sokolov, 61, was an admiral in the Russian navy who headed the Black Sea Fleet, the ICC said.

The sinking of the Sergei Kotov is a much-needed boost to Ukraine’s morale after recent losses. On land, Russian forces have been advancing across the eastern frontline and last month captured the salient city of Avdiivka after a five-month assault. At sea, Ukraine has had greater success, despite having no navy of its own. It has used sophisticated home-produced drones to pick off Russian warships.

On 14 February, Ukraine sunk a heavy assault ship, the Caesar Kuznikov, near the Crimean resort town of Alushka. The Magura V5 naval drones used to destroy the vessel were also used to sink the Sergei Kotov.

The losses have forced Moscow to relocate much of its Black Sea fleet to the safer Russian port of Novorossiysk. Last summer, Ukraine resumed exporting commercial grain shipments from Odesa and other ports.

Pro-Putin commentators expressed dismay on Tuesday at the loss of another warship. “I don’t want to comment on this. Because if this continues, the Black Sea Fleet will only have catamarans and rubber banana boats for tourists. [It’s] fucked up,” one posted on Telegram.

Ukrainian officials reacted with glee. The defence ministry tweeted that the Sergei Kotov – launched in 2021 – had become “a submarine” and had “joined the Moskva”, the fleet’s powerful flagship that was sunk in April 2022, at the beginning of Moscow’s full-scale invasion.

“Historic humiliation of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet continues,” tweeted Illia Ponomarenko, the former defence correspondent for the Kyiv Independent newspaper.

Ukraine’s long-term strategic objective is to degrade Russia’s military and naval assets on Crimea, and to blow up the Kerch bridge connecting the occupied peninsula with the Russian mainland.

Kyiv has repeatedly asked Berlin to give it Germany’s long-range Taurus missile system. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has so far ruled this out. Earlier this week, the Kremlin released an intercepted phone call during which high-ranking German military officers discussed how Taurus could be used to destroy the crossing.