Ukraine Blasts Russian Tug Near Snake Island With Land-Based Missiles

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Early this morning, the Ukrainian military released video feed footage of yet another Russian ship coming under attack while transiting towards Snake Island, an outpost infamously captured by the Russian Navy early in the conflict.

The video shows two missiles slamming into a vessel believed to be 19 miles east of Snake (or Zmiinyi) Island, causing it to erupt in a fireball.

In a statement on Twitter, the Ukrainian Navy claimed the vessel to be the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Project 22870 rescue tug Vassily Bekh, described as carrying ammunition, weapons and personnel to reinforce Russian troops on the island—as well as a Tor air defense system.

Unconfirmed Russian sources apparently claim 10 of 33 crew onboard are missing and the rest injured.

As with footage of several other vessels struck by Ukraine’s military, the attack is recorded by a video feed displaying the distinctive user interface of Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drones operated by the Ukrainian Navy and Air Force.

But while Bayraktars have knocked out smaller Russian vessels with laser-guided anti-tank missiles, this video shows two missiles approaching perpendicular to the viewer at relatively slow speed and at low altitude—ie. clearly, not launched by the overflying drone. Quite likely the drone was instead earlier used to transmit coordinates to land-based missile launchers to facilitate the attack.

A Ukrainian regional official claimed the attack was made by land-based Harpoon anti-ship systems recently delivered to Ukraine by the United States and Denmark. That seems to correspond with the sea-skimming cruise missiles seen in the video.

Other sources allege, however, the attack was by a Brimstone missile supplied by the U.K. These supersonic missiles are quite fast but have only a 14-pound warhead.

Additionally, Ukraine has rushed into service indigenously developed Neptune land-based anti-ship missiles which might also have executed such an attack. Neptunes were responsible for the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship the cruiser Moskva.


Rescue tug in the crosshairs

Bekh was one of six Project 22870 rescue tugs laid down and launched at Astrakhan between 2014-2019 for service in the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian flotilla. A seventh is currently under construction.

This type is intended to help recover damaged ships at sea. That includes assisting with firefighting gear to help put out fires on damaged ships before towing them to port. (It should not be confused with the patrol boat Vasily Bykov Ukraine claimed to have damaged with rocket artillery earlier in March.)

The Bekh additionally has emergency medical facilities and both unmanned and manned ARS-600 submersibles which could dive down to 60 meters to assist in submarine resuce operations.

Though the rescue tug lacked integral armament, imagery prior to her sinking shows the Vassily Bekh was carrying a Tor-M2MK short-range air defense vehicle on its deck as an improvised air defense measure. The Tor could plausibly have helped swat down the incoming cruise missile or even threatened the overflying drone—but apparently didn’t.

As Harpoon missiles boast large 300-500 pound warheads designed to badly damage or destroy large warships, it seems unlikely Vassily Bekh would have survived two hits from Harpoons.


Ukraine’s New Harpoons

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The Harpoon missile, in a multitude of incarnations, has arguably been the most prolific Western anti-ship weapon since it first entered U.S. Navy service in 1977. The latest models of the Boeing-built turbojet-powered weapon feature greatly expanded range and guidance capabilities than the original model.

In June, Ukraine began receiving Harpoon missiles and launchers from at least four different countries.

  • U.S. is sending two Harpoon coastal defense systems (truck-based launchers)
  • Denmark is sending RGM-184L4 missiles + launchers
  • The Netherlands and United Kingdom are both sending Harpoon missiles

The RGM-84L-4 model Harpoon Block 2 missiles given by Denmark have a maximum range of 77 miles and combine GPS and INS navigation systems to arrive in the vicinity of the target. As ships are moving targets, the missile uses a radar-seeker to complete the intercept. This model has additional features: ground-attack capability, resilience to enemy counter-measures (ECCM), re-attack capability, and programmable waypoints and flight profiles.

By June 9, the Ukrainian ministry of defense claimed Harpoons were already operationally deployed, suggesting groundwork for training Ukrainian personnel to operate them began well before then.

When Ukraine earlier destroyed the cruiser Moskva with Neptune missiles, it took out both the Black Sea Fleet’s most capable air defense platform and said fleet’s clearly reckless sense of invulnerability.

Afterwards, Russia’s larger warships had to forsake shore-bombardment missions targeting the area around Odessa and pulled further back in the Black Sea to avoid the surveillance/strike range of Ukraine’s coastal missiles. The arrivals of the Harpoon will likely compel even greater caution from Russian warships and could complicate efforts to blockade Ukraine.

However, there was no way to avoid getting close to hostile Ukrainian shorelines to resupply the Russian garrison on Snake Island. To mitigate risks, Russia appears to have relied on smaller, more expendable vessels for the job. That job proved dangerous indeed as Ukrainian Bayraktar drones picked off four Raptor-class patrol boats near the island, a Serna-class air cavity landing craft at the island’s pier and a helicopter in the middle of landing troops.

Despite Russian efforts to reinforce Snake Island’s air defenses, the latest sinking shows that vessels sent to resupply the island will continue to be exposed to deadly attacks. The garrison itself could also grow more vulnerable to land-based attacks as Ukraine integrates HIMARS rocket artillery which can deliver precise GPS-guided strikes from over 40 miles away.

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