The Ukrainian Armed Forces carried out a complex missile and drone attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet homeport of Sevastopol on Wednesday morning. The attack resulted in the acknowledged destruction of one Russian vessel and one nuclear-capable submarine. The focus of the attack was the Ordzhonikidze shipyard. According to Russian reports, the facility was targeted by ten cruise missiles, either British Storm Shadow (see Putin’s War, Week 63. Chechens Replace Wagner in Bakhmut, Storm Shadow Arrives, and Russia Says ‘Family Guy’ Is a Meany-Pants for more information) or French SCALP-EG (see Putin’s War, Week 72. Ukraine Misses NATO Membership but Still Wins and Ground Combat Gains Velocity for details) and three unmanned surface vessels (USV). The Russians claim to have shot down seven missiles and destroyed all the drones.
This was a complex attack in the execution, but it was carried out as part of a sophisticated operation.
Monday, Ukrainian special operations forces carried out a daring operation in the Black Sea. Using Rigid Raider-style boats, they seized two gas drilling rigs some 40 miles from Snake Island (Putin’s War, Week 18. Snake Island, Prisoner Exchanges, Calculated Terror, and the War in Donbas). These drilling platforms were illegally seized from Ukraine at the same time Crimea was annexed via a sham referendum, and Russian troops invaded the Donbas region of Ukraine.
The Russians had used these platforms as military outposts in much the same way the Iranians use theirs. The platforms’ radars provided early warning of missile and USV strikes on Sevastopol. This maritime raid punched a hole through the early warning system and may have enabled the capture of the electronic components of a Russian electronic warfare platform.
Last week, the Ukrainians destroyed an over-the-horizon radar system on Crimea’s west coast.
In August, Ukrainian raiders destroyed an S-400 missile complex, also on the west coast of Crimea; see Putin’s War, Week 78. Prigozhin Crashes, Two Russian Bomber Bases and Moscow Hit by Drones.
The net effect was to shut down Russia’s ability to monitor and respond to Ukrainian activity in that part of the Black Sea.
The Main Event
According to Russian milblogger Rybar, the Sevastopol drydocks were hit by Storm Shadow missiles launched from Su-24 strike aircraft.
The blogger, Rybar, said the missiles were launched from Su-24M aircraft over the Black Sea. Rybar said air defenses, including a Pantsir-S1, had brought down seven missiles, but added that “unfortunately, three Storm Shadow missiles reached their target: the landing ship Minsk and the submarine Rostov-on-Don, which were in dry dock, received varying degrees of damage.”
The attack would have been impossible without the campaign against Russian electronic warfare and air defense assets in Crimea, culminating in successfully capturing the drilling platforms.
The vessels struck were the Ropucha-class landing ship Minsk (the Ropucha-class landing ship (LST) Olenegorski Gornjak was heavily damaged in a Ukrainian attack on the Russian Navy Black Sea port Novorossiysk; see BREAKING: Russian Navy Ship Heavily Damaged by Ukrainian Drone Strike. Also hit was the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine Rostov-on-Don.
Damage assessment is difficult at this stage. The Russians have reported that the two ships were destroyed, and they have claimed that they were damaged but will be repaired.
Repair in Sevastopol is highly unlikely.
A Storm Shadow hit on a submarine is going to do major damage. Sevastopol cannot repair hull damage to submarines.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that it will be difficult to repair ships in a facility where they can be attacked.
Ultimately, both ships will be sent to major shipyards for repairs. Under the terms of the Montreux Convention governing the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, they cannot be replaced once these ships are evacuated.
What It Means
No Nuclear Attack
The obvious point to be made here is that Elon Musk was full of crap when he used fear of setting off World War III to prevent the Ukrainians from attacking the Sevastopol naval base a year ago; see Elon Musk, Ukraine, and Why Money Can’t Buy Common Sense or Morality. There was no nuclear response to this attack because Russia will not shoot nukes in Ukraine.
The Russians are Outclassed
Retired Commander, US Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges (full disclosure: Ben is an acquaintance, and we’re on a private email list) hits this exactly right.
Raids on Crimea and oil/gas platforms to eliminate radar, then a complex drone/missile strike against Sevastopol. This is a very sophisticated approach to making Crimea untenable for the Russians.
The Ukrainian General Staff is running rings around the Russian General Staff. https://t.co/53AnBuXYOT
— Ben Hodges (@general_ben) September 13, 2023
From the early days of the war, the Ukrainians have run a very entrepreneurial concept of operations against a rigid, hidebound Russian one. The deep strikes run against Moscow, strategic bomber bases, and USV operations all show the Russian command structure is out-thought and out-performed.
Crimea Is Part of the War Zone
The idea that Crimea is off limits to attack because Russia stole it is officially dead. The unofficial rule has been “pining for the fjords” for a while, but a large-scale attack on the Russian Navy in port signals a new phase. The Russians need to get used to this.
Sevastopol is Not Defensible
The Russian claim to have shot down seven of ten Storm Shadow missiles is a moral victory and illustrates the problem facing the defender. Russia’s problem is that it doesn’t have the layered air defense system that protects Ukrainian critical assets, and Sevastopol is just a little over 100 miles from Ukrainian territory. Ukraine receiving ATACMS missiles from the US (Biden White House Poised to Send ATACMS Tactical Ballistic Missile to Ukraine), and the extended-range German Taurus cruise missile means that any ship in Sevastopol is just a target. The capture of the drilling rigs by the Ukrainians means they can emplace Neptune anti-ship missiles along with radar and make the western Black Sea off limits to Russian ships.
It would not be a shock to see the Black Sea Fleet units in Sevastopol up-anchor and abandon the port. Abandoning Sevastopol would also call into question Crimea’s value when it can be dominated by Ukrainian fires.