Last year, Ukraine put out an unusual crowdfunding request. It aimed to build 100 sea drones, which it would use to attack Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and ports.
Ukraine needed to protect its waters, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Telegram in support of the United24 campaign, which had a goal of $25 million – enough to purchase 100 drones, at $250,000 a piece, USNI News previously reported.
Ukraine by no means invented lethal surface drones but the country has found new ways to use them in a conflict. Ukraine, a country without a naval fleet, has used drones and other missile strikes to largely stave off attacks from the Black Sea Fleet while slowly dismantling Russia’s dominance over the Black Sea.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is a source of attacks on southern Ukraine, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova told reporters on Oct. 27 at the Military Reporters and Editors conference. Russian ships have launched Kalibr cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities as part of the ongoing war between the two neighboring countries, USNI News reported.
Ukraine needs to dismantle the Black Sea Fleet, Markarova said, to protect its citizens and also to better allow for the country to export grain and foodstuffs, which bolster the economy. Russia pulled out of the grain deal in July, with Ukraine opening up a humanitarian corridor in August for grain ships. The 100th ship has passed through as of Monday, Ukraine announced.
That’s where the Ukrainian drones come in. It is the story of David and Goliath, Kyiv Independent reporter Francis Farrell said on the paper’s podcast. A country without a navy is taking down a sophisticated Russian fleet that should be maintaining dominance in the Black Sea.
“And then you could already tell that in case something’s changing here, the whole idea of what a naval contest is changing and the whole point the whole basically legitimacy of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is now seriously under question,” Farrell said on the podcast.
Over the past year, Ukraine has used drones to attack the Russian Black Sea Fleet, at times pushing Russia to withdraw the fleet from its naval base in Sevastapol, Crimea, to Novorossiysk, a Russian port city farther from Ukraine. Even Novorossiysk is not safe from the drones, Farrell said, leading Russia to consider building a shipyard in Georgia.
“That Sevastopol, this great pride of Russian military history of Russian, kind of Crimea mythology, it’s now becoming untenable for the Russian Navy, and we see that very simply through the satellite images of how Russia is slowly withdrawing the bulk of their fleet,” Farrel said on the podcast.
The most recent attack, Nov. 10, saw Ukraine say it hit two Russian landing crafts near Chernomorske, Crimea, CNN reported.
The idea of an uncrewed, explosive ship has been used for millennia, said Scott Savitz, a senior engineer at RAND. Navies would set ships on fire and then send them to attack another fleet, he said.
In the case of the terror attack on USS Cole (DDG-67), suicide bombers guided their attack craft into the target. The advantage of uncrewed drones is they come at a relatively low cost compared to the damage they cause.
What Ukraine has done is take the idea of the explosive unmanned vessel into the 21st century, Savitz said.
“Ukraine has done an outstanding job of achieving a measure of sea denial within areas of the Black Sea,” he said. “In the absence of warships, it’s not able to control the sea, but it has shown how, with use of these explosive uncrewed surface vehicles, that it’s able to either attack warships at sea, or attack them in port, and thereby compel the Russian Navy to retreat, first, into ports that are further afield within Russia proper as opposed to Crimea.”
With the drones, Ukraine also has managed to deny Russia the sea power it expected, Savitz said. Russia has kept its ships away from Ukrainian shores because of Ukraine’s drone and missile strike capabilities. Both countries also have shown restraint in attacking each other’s commercial ships, Savitz said.
With Turkey closing the Bosphorus Strait to warships, outside of Black Sea nations, Russia cannot bolster its fleet to replace losses from Ukrainian attacks, he said.
But before the drone strikes that have defined Ukraine’s attacks on the Black Sea Fleet began, the conflict was defined by a Cold War warship.
Early on during the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the former RTS Moskva sailed by Snake Island as Russia looked to forcibly take the Ukrainian-claimed island. A Ukrainian soldier told the ship to “go fuck yourself,” stirring up a morale victory for Ukraine, despite the loss of the island. The incident was memorialized on a stamp.
But in April, Ukraine uses two Neptune missiles to attack and sink Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. USNI News found that Moskva was unprepared and blind to the Ukrainian attack, leading to its sinking.
After Moskva’s sinking, Russia pulls most of its fleet back to Sevastapol, Farrell said. And the Black Sea goes relatively quiet, with Russian ships largely playing a resupply role, USNI News reported.
USNI News contributor H I Sutton also reported that in March 2022, Ukrainian missile strikes hit a Russian Raptor-class assault boat and the Alligator-class landing ship Saratov, which damagee two other Ropucha-class landing ships.
Sutton reports that Ukraine strikes and sinks the Russian ship Vasiliy Bekh. Newsweek lists the ship as destroyed in the war.
Grain deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to allow Ukraine to ship grain and foodstuffs from three Ukrainian ports.
Ukraine uses unmanned aerial vehicles to attack Sevastapol. Ukraine retook Snake Island in July, helped by the sinking of supply ship with a Harpoon missile.
In September, Ukraine used British cruise missiles to attack Russian submarines in Sevastapol, as well as the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, the Atlantic Council reported. This likely prompted Russia to move its submarines out of Sevastapol, USNI News reported.
Ukraine first started using maritime drones in October, Farrel said. That month, what appeared to be a Ukrainian drone made from jet ski parts washed ashore in Crimea, reported USNI News.
By the end of the month, Ukraine had used nine drones to strike Sevastapol, according to the BBC. The attack prompted Russia to temporarily withdraw from the grain deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations. Russia rejoined a few days later.
New Black Sea Fleet flagship Admiral Makarov is damaged in the Oct. 29 strike, The Kyiv Independent reported.
Ukraine also attacks the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia. While Russia attributed the attack to a truck bomb, forensic maritime experts have suggested unmanned surface vehicles may have been involved, Savitz said.
After the attacks in Sevastapol, Russia pulled its fleet from the port city and sent it to Novorossiysk to avoid Ukrainian drone attacks. That same month, Ukraine began its crowdfunding campaign to buy 100 more maritime drones.
December 2022 to February 2023
Over the winter, as the war rolled into its second year, the Black Sea mostly remained quiet as a stalemate played out. There was a January Russian attack in which Russia launched antiship missiles from the Black Sea, killing 40. But, overall, Russia kept its ships away from the Ukrainian coastline in fear of antiship missiles and drone attacks.
By the first year of the war, the Russian Black Sea Fleet had lost its flagship, a supply ship and a landing ship, USNI News reported.
March to June 2023
Russian Telegram channels report explosions in Sevastapol on March 18, The Kyiv Independent reported. Reports emerge of another Ukrainian USV attack on Sevastapol on March 22.
Mikhail Razvozhaev, Sevastapol’s leader, claims surface drones attacked the city on April 24, according to The Kyiv Independent. Razvozhaev claims another drone attack on May 1, according to The Kyiv Independent.
Sutton also reports that three Ukrainian drones attacked Russian intelligence ship Ivan Khurs on May 24.
Sutton reports Russian sources claim Vishnya-class Priazovye, an intelligence ship, was attacked by Ukranian drones.
Beyond the Ukrainian drone attacks that come about once per month, the Black Sea is relatively quiet. Ukraine continues to export from its three ports under the grain deal.
Russia withdraws from the grain deal, claiming that it did not receive its end of the agreement. Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal leads to tension on the Black Sea and its bordering ports. Russia says it will treat commercial ships going to Ukraine as potentially carrying weapons. Moscow also begins a bombardment on Odesa.
On Aug. 4, a Ukrainian drone attacks Ropucha-class landing vessel Olenegorskiy Gornyak, causing “serious damage,” The Kyiv Independent reported. The Ukrainian paper also reports that a drone carrying 450 kilograms of explosives collided with Olenegorskiy Gornyak.
The next day, a Ukrainian drone struck and damags Russian oil tanker SIG.
On Aug. 18, a Ukranian USV attacks Russian arms transport Sparta-IV, Sutton reports.
With the grain deal collapse, Ukraine sets up a humanitarian corridor for commercial ships to travel to and from Ukrainian ports. The corridor does see ships pass through it, although on a more limited scale than under the grain deal.
By September, Ukrainian strikes on Russian assets increase, while Russia continues its bombardment of Odesa.
Between Sept. 13 and 14, Ukraine attacks Sevastapol, as well as Russian tanker Yaz and weapons transport Ursa Major, Sutton reports. Ukraine also attacks Bora-class missile corvette Samum, Sutton reports.
The strikes, as well as those on Sept. 20 and 22, likely put Russia on the defensive, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence says in its daily Ukraine update, USNI News previously reported. The Sept. 22 strike on Crimea kills 33 Russian officers, with Ukraine initially claiming that the commander of the Black Sea Fleet Viktor Sokolov died in the strike. However, Sokolov appeared in a Russian video the next day.
The strike also damages a Ropucha-class Minsk landing ship and Kilo-class Rostov-on-Don submarine, according to The Kyiv Independent. Both of the ships also are listed on Newsweek’s list of Russian naval assets damaged in the war.
In early October, U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey says that he sees a “functional defeat” of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, according to The Kyiv Independent. Russia, once again, moves its Black Sea Fleet from Sevastapol to Novorossiysk. This move includes Admiral Makarov and Admiral Essen, as well as five landing ships and three submarines, according to the Ukrainian paper.
By Oct. 12, Ukraine claims Russia has lost 20 ships. Newsweek’s list of ships, both damaged and destroyed, lists 17 ships, as of Nov. 8. Radio Free Europe reports on Oct. 12 that Russian ship Pavel Derzhavin is damaged near Sevastapol, but there were no additional details.
In October, Russia allegedly added two new frigates, as well as a submarine, to its Black Sea Fleet. It also announces that it will start Black Sea patrols because of the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean. The U.S. has kept a carrier strike group in the Mediterranean since December 2021 in response to the planned and ongoing Russia invasion of Ukraine. However, it moves the carrier strike group in the Med – the Gerald R. Ford Strike Group – to the eastern Mediterranean as part of the response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Ukraine continues its maritime drone strikes on Russian targets, particularly in Crimea. Russia, in turn, continues to say it has taken down Ukrainian drones, including six on Nov. 2.
Ukrainian strikes hit the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch, likely damaging a newly built Russian ship, the U.K. Ministry of Defence announced on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. Business Insider reports that French-supplied SCALP missiles may have been used in the attack.
Zelenskyy thanks the Ukrainian forces for targeting the warship in the strike on the Kerch shipyard in presidential remarks. The damaged ship is possibly the cruise missile carrier Askold, according to The Kyiv Independent.
On Nov. 10, Ukraine claims it hit two more Russian landing craft with maritime drones, CNN reported.
What Comes Next?
It is hard to predict what will come next, Savitz said. Mines continue to be an issue for ships, including commercial ones. In October, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker hit a mine in the Black Sea, The Kyiv Independent reported.
Moscow also continues its strikes on grain infrastructure and Ukrainian ports. On Nov. 8, a Russian Kh-31P air-to-surface missile strikes an Odesa port, hitting a Liberian-flagged commercial ship, according to the U.K. MoD. A harbor pilot is killed, while three crew members are injured.
Ukraine continues to flow foodstuffs through its humanitarian corridor. On Monday, the 100th ship passes through the corridor.
There are rumors that Russia is looking to build a naval base in the Abkhazia region of Georgia, with Politico Europe reporting that Abkhazia and Russia already signed an agreement for the base. Whether that comes to fruition is still up in the air, Savitz said.
“They want to be within the Black Sea further away or as far as possible away from possible Ukrainian attacks,” he said. “How well developed that will be, how quickly that might happen, a whole host of questions come up and constructing a new port facility or developing it such that it’s useful for the particular ships that you have, during a really intense period of conflict strikes me as hard.”
Savitz is keeping his eye on the Kerch Bridge as an area of interest for the future, he said. The bridge serves as a connection point for Russia and Crimea, but also as a point of pride for Putin, who sees is as making one Russia.
“And the fact that Ukraine has successfully targeted that and done so repeatedly, is a severe impairment to overall Russian power within Crimea and ability to project power from Crimea,” he said.
The U.S. Navy, and military as a whole, can learn lessons from Ukraine’s use of drones, Savitz said. Unmanned surface vehicle designs can allow them to sit lower in the water and/or carry heavier payloads since the vessels do not have to account for humans.
But the U.S. is not the only country watching the Russo-Ukrainian War, Savitz said. Other powers, such as China, Iran and North Korea, also are looking at the use of naval drones, meaning the U.S. will also need to develop its fleet in a way that it can counter the use of drones by other countries, Savitz said.