The Russian Black Sea Fleet May Have Lost Another Flagship

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The Ukrainian navy for months has been hunting the Russian navy frigate Admiral Makarov. It seems the Ukrainians finally got a shot at the 409-foot, missile-armed vessel in her home port of Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The Ukrainian government on Saturday released dramatic videos apparently depicting a successful nighttime strike on Makarov or her sister ship Admiral Essen by at least one unmanned surface vessel.

The speedboat-size USV, possibly packing hundreds of pounds of explosives, dodged Russian helicopters and small boats and drove directly at the frigate, approaching to within a few feet before the video feed went dead.

There aren’t yet any photos or videos circulating online that can confirm whether the frigate suffered any damage. In the best case, her crew blew up the drone boat before the drone boat blew up them. In the worst case, Makarov or Essen suffered the kind of waterline damage that quickly can sink a ship. To say nothing of any fires that might have resulted from the blast.

The daring robotic raid is history repeating itself. Makarov became the flagship of the depleted Russian Black Sea Fleet in April after Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles and shore-based missile crews worked together to sink the previous flagship, the 612-foot cruiser Moskva.

Even if Makarov remains afloat—and that’s a distinct possibility—the Ukrainians still can count the nighttime strike as a win. There are reports of other Black Sea Fleet ships suffering damage in the raid. And to avoid future USV attacks, the Russians either will have to devote significantly more resources to protecting Sevastopol, or pull the Black Sea Fleet’s three dozen or so surviving vessels from Crimea.

The Ukrainian navy has been shockingly successful, considering it no longer has any big ships. In the early hours of the initial Russian bombardment on Feb. 23, the crew of Hetman Sahaidachny, the Ukrainian navy’s flagship and only large surface combatant, scuttled the frigate at its moorings in Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic port on the western Black Sea.

For the first two months of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Russians dominated the Black Sea. Sailing and flying with impunity, they captured tiny Snake Island, 80 miles south of Odesa, and—using the island plus some gas platforms they’d captured from Ukraine as bases for air-defenses and surveillance gear—enforced a blockade of Odesa that effectively cut off Ukraine’s vital grain exports.

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The Black Sea Fleet was poised to attempt an amphibious landing around Odesa. Capturing the port would complete Russia’s conquest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and cut off the country from the sea, permanently strangling its economy.

Russian forces meanwhile captured or scattered the rest of the Ukrainian navy’s ships, including one landing ship and a clutch of armored patrol boats. When the Ukrainians struck back, they did so with land-based missiles, UAVs and USVs.

The tide began to turn on March 23, when a Ukrainian Tochka ballistic missile hit the Black Sea Fleet landing ship Saratov while she was pierside in the occupied port of Berdyansk. The explosion sank Saratov, damaged at least one other landing ship and underscored the danger Russian ships might face in a direct assault on Odesa.

Then, on April 13, a Ukrainian navy anti-ship battery put two Neptune missiles into the side of the Russian cruiser Moskva, eventually sinking the 612-foot vessel.

In a single strike, the Ukrainians deprived the Black Sea Fleet of its main air-defense ship with her S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles. Desperate to preserve their surviving large warships—in particular, the two Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates including Makarov—fleet commanders pulled back the bigger ships 80 miles from the Ukrainian coast.

That exposed the rest of the Black Sea Fleet—in particular, support ships that can’t effectively defend themselves—to attack by Ukraine’s missiles and drones. “Russia’s resupply vessels have minimum protection in the western Black Sea,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.

Ukraine meanwhile reinforced its Neptune battery with U.S.-made Harpoon missiles, compounding the risk to Russian ships in the western Black Sea. The missileers coordinated with drone operators flying Turkish-made TB-2 drones to hunt down and sink several of the Black Sea Fleet’s Raptor patrol boats and landing craft.

In early May there were rumors a Ukrainian missile had struck Makarov. That turned out to be untrue. But a Harpoon did hit and sink the support ship Vsevolod Bobrov while she made a supply run to Snake Island on May 12.

Ukrainian missiles also struck at least one of the gas platforms the Russians were using for observation. Ukrainian drones, fighters and artillery bombarded Snake Island, rendering the treeless rock uninhabitable.

The Russian garrison fled the island on May 31. A week later, Ukrainian commandos hoisted a Ukrainian flag. Snake Island’s liberation signaled to the Ukrainian merchant marine that the western Black Sea was safe for commerce.

Odesa was still under blockade—and would remain so until Turkey brokered an end to the port blockage in late July—but ships now could get grain out of Ukraine via canals connecting small river ports near the Romanian border to the western Black Sea.

The river route might regain its previous significance in the wake of last night’s Sevastopol raid. The Kremlin announced it was ending its agreement with Kyiv to allow big grain ships to sail from Odesa.

The Russians aren’t acting from a position of strength. Unable to replace the Black Sea Fleet’s losses as long as Turkey controls the Bosphorous Strait joining the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Russian commanders have focused on protecting what remains of the fleet. Ships hug the Crimean coast, staying inside the range of land-based aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

But the Ukrainian drone boats struck the Black Sea Fleet well inside that protective umbrella. Between the ballistic and anti-ship missiles and airborne and seaborne drones, the Ukrainian armed forces have plenty of ways of sinking Russian ships.

The Black Sea Fleet isn’t safe in the western Black Sea. It isn’t safe in Sevastopol. The only place it might be safe is the only place where it’s totally irrelevant to the wider war: in ports in Russia proper, tied up pierside and closely guarded around the clock.

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