Drone Strike On Black Sea Fleet Headquarters Likely A Sign Of What’s To Come

Despite Ukrainian denials from some quarters, officials in Moscow say that the drone strike was launched from within Russia-held territory.

byThomas Newdick| PUBLISHED Aug 1, 2022 3:08 PM
Drone Strike On Black Sea Fleet Headquarters Likely A Sign Of What’s To Come
Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Russia claims that its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea came under a Ukrainian drone attack yesterday, leading to the cancelation of planned Navy Day events. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not directly claimed responsibility for the strike, which targeted the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The much-touted armada has had major warship losses in the conflict, including as the result of Ukrainian actions.

“Early this morning, [Ukraine] decided to spoil our Navy Day,” Mikhail Razvozhayev, the head of the local Russian administration in Sevastopol, posted to social media yesterday. “An unidentified object flew into the yard of the fleet headquarters. According to preliminary data, it was a drone.”

While Razvozhayev said that there were no fatalities, he did confirm that five people were injured in the attack and that these were all employees at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet. No names or ranks of the victims were provided.

“All celebratory events have been canceled due to safety concerns,” Razvozhayev noted, in regard to the planned Navy Day festivities. “I ask you to stay calm and stay at home if possible.”

Photographs posted on Razvozhayev’s account showed bloodstains and broken glass at the entrance to a military building said to be in Sevastopol. Unconfirmed accounts say that the building shown in the images was a cafeteria and that the drone itself came down around 50 yards from this location, in an internal courtyard.

While unconfirmed by other sources, a Russian politician, Olga Kovitidi, claimed that the drone was launched “from the territory of Sevastopol.” Kovitidi, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told Russia’s RIA news agency yesterday that “Urgent search operations are being conducted in the city to track down the organizers of this terrorist act. They will be found by the evening.”

Russian Navy and police members patrol in front of the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea, on July 31, 2022. Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

There are no details available as to the kind of drone that was used in the attack on Sevastopol, although a spokesperson for the Black Sea Fleet described it as “homemade” and said it was carrying a small explosive payload.

There has been at least one previous incident involving a drone flying a one-way ‘kamikaze’ strike on a Russian target deep behind enemy lines on a strategic target. On that occasion, an oil refinery in Russia’s Rostov region, on the border with Ukraine, was hit by a drone that looked like it may have been an adapted, commercially available product.

Certainly, the dynamics of this latest raid would suggest it was almost certainly launched from within Russian-controlled territory, especially if a smaller type of drone was used.

While the whole of the Crimean peninsula has been annexed by Russia, there’s also an extensive buffer zone in southern Ukraine that has been held by Russian forces since early in the most recent invasion. Located at the southern tip of Crimea, Sevastopol is therefore hundreds of miles from the front lines, making an attack of the kind that Kovitidi described more likely.

So far, there has been no official confirmation of the drone strike from the Ukrainian side, but there have been some denials that Kyiv was involved.

The Ukrainian Navy forcefully rejected the Russian claim of a drone strike, alleging that it was simply an excuse to not run the Navy Day celebrations in Crimea. It didn’t provide further details, but it would presumably explain the explosion in Sevastopol as a Russian false-flag operation.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Odesa military region, Serhiy Bratchuk, also denied that Kyiv was behind the incident, dismissing the suggestion as “sheer provocation” on the part of the Russians. Going to the effort of arranging an explosion as a means of canceling Navy Day celebrations seems like an unusual step for Russia to take, especially as it ends up with a situation that appears even more embarassing to the outside world, once again also confirming its lack of aerial defenses against relatively low-tech opposition.

It’s also notable that one portion of the event, which was the firepower demonstration, had already been canceled in advance. That’s hardly surprising considering the current war footing of the Black Sea Fleet, but it does seem odd that the entire celebrations weren’t simply shelved at the same time.

It also appears that at least some warships were apparently ready for the parade, suggesting it was only canceled at the last moment:

However, Natalia Gumenyuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Command, was a little more circumspect. She said that “Ukraine’s armed forces are carrying out activities to liberate our occupied territories, using the weapons models that are available for this purpose. Our targets are exclusively the military facilities of the Russian Federation.”

Gumenyuk added that “We do not strike on the territory of the Russian Federation,” but that “Crimea is Ukraine.”

This opens up the possibility, at least, that the Ukrainian Armed Forces may have deliberately targeted Sevastopol, since Kyiv doesn’t recognize Crimea as being part of Russia. The strategic peninsula, home to the Black Sea Fleet, was annexed by Russia in 2014.

If the attack did indeed take place and if it originated from Russian-held territory, that would indicate either an operation launched by members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces operating far behind enemy lines or, perhaps more likely, a raid that was undertaken by members of a local pro-Ukrainian resistance group.

In the latter case, a strike of this kind would send a clear signal to Moscow that its forces and infrastructure are now also under threat from resistance groups, with targets even deep within Russian lines also being at risk. Coming as it did on Navy Day, the propaganda effect of such an operation would be greatly intensified.

Navy Day is a significant event in the Russian calendar, with major celebrations held in the different ports associated with the various Russian Navy fleets. This year, President Vladimir Putin attended Kronstadt, in St Petersburg, the main base of the Baltic Fleet. Events typically include a tour of ships by the relevant fleet commander, concerts, and fireworks.

The Russian Navy Ropucha class landing ship Azov launches rockets during a firepower demonstration at the Navy Day in Sevastopol in 2015. sovraskin/Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the details behind the drone strike, it provides yet more evidence that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is under threat, even in the relative safety of its own home port.

So far, the Black Sea Fleet has suffered the loss of its flagship, the Slava class cruiser Moskva, in an incident in April that Ukrainian and U.S. defense officials attributed to a strike by land-based Neptun anti-ship missiles. Russian authorities blamed an accidental fire aboard the warship but have since been reluctant to release any more details, with only one death onboard Moskva having been confirmed. Many dozens of sailors have been reported missing.

In March, meanwhile, the Alligator class landing ship Saratov was set ablaze in the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed that one of its Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) was responsible for the inferno, but that’s unconfirmed. It’s also possible that the ship was the victim of an accidental fire that spread into ammunition that it was either carrying or had unloaded.

More recently, several smaller vessels, primarily patrol boats and landing craft, but also a Russian Navy tug boat, have fallen victim to Ukrainian attacks, mainly drone strikes, around Snake Island, in the Black Sea. This had been held by Russian forces since early in the conflict. At the end of June, Ukraine announced that it had pushed the final Russian forces from the island.

The attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters also comes at a time in which the focus of the conflict is increasingly shifting to the south of Ukraine. Here, the Ukrainian Armed Forces apparently have their sights set on regaining the Kherson region from Russia as part of a wider counteroffensive in this area.

Russia, for its part, continues to launch missile attacks on Ukrainian objectives in the south, most recently hitting the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv yesterday. This strike, reportedly involving more than 12 missiles, killed Oleksiy Vadatursky, the founder and owner of a major Ukrainian grain exporter. As well as being a strategically important city in its own right, Mykolaiv also borders the Kherson region.

Russian forces are apparently also being moved to the south in expectation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, with reports from Kyiv that additional Russian troops have arrived in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhizhya regions from Donbas in the east.

In the background to these territorial ambitions is the issue of grain exports from Ukraine, a trade in which Vadatursky had played a key role. Russia introduced a blockade of Ukraine’s ports at the start of the war, triggering a major grain shortage.

As a result, Ukraine has struggled to get its grain shipments out of its Black Sea ports, although a recent agreement, brokered with assistance from the United Nations and Turkey, is intended to provide safe passage for ships carrying Ukrainian grain. Three Ukrainian ports are covered by this, and the first ship left the port of Odesa this morning, according to Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry. The Sierra Leone-flagged ship is carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn.

For now, the role played by the Kyiv regime in the drone attack on Sevastopol remains unclear. What we do know is that there has been evidence of previous attacks inside Russia. These appear to have targeted critical infrastructure including an ammunition storage facility, an airbase, and an oil storage facility in Belgorod. The latter installation appears to have been hit by Ukrainian Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters in a daring low-level raid.

Operations like these, presuming they were all orchestrated from Kyiv, hamper the Kremlin’s war effort as well as carrying a significant propaganda effect, signaling to Russia that its infrastructure is at risk from clandestine missions. This is also a tactic that Ukraine has been engaged in since 2014, soon after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region.

Speaking to The War Zone recently, “Shaman,” the head of a shadowy Ukraine special operations group known as the Shaman Battalion, confirmed that his soldiers have been conducting “multiple big numbers” of missions into Crimea and other territories. “We’re using ordinary tactics of SOF [special operations forces] units,” he added. “We’re raiding their rear. We’re conducting diversions … We love it and we’re doing it with pleasure.”

However, perhaps even more concerning for Russia is an apparent new wave of guerilla warfare and especially targeted assassination carried out by pro-Ukrainian partisans. There has already been a string of murders and explosions in Russian-held territory, especially in southern Ukraine. With plenty of experience of this kind of warfare in the Caucasus, Moscow will be well aware of the potential for disruption offered by partisan resistance groups. Still, if Russia's invasion was to drag on, as it has, an extremely bloody insurgency was all but certain.

Drones have become a tool of choice for many of these types of activities, including targeted assassinations against everyone from rival drug cartel members to heads of state, to strikes on strategic assets deep into foreign territory.

Once again, it’s not clear if yesterday’s drone attack was the work of resistance fighters operating in Russian-held territory, or Ukrainian military or security service elements operating behind enemy lines. It could also have been a combination of the two. Either way, attacks like this make it abundantly clear to Russia that it’s facing many different threats as it seeks to preserve the territorial gains it has already made, while at the same time redeploying forces to withstand renewed Ukrainian offensives in different regions. But most of all, it sends the chilling message that Russian forces are under threat even in uncontested areas, including at the very heart of the Black Sea Fleet itself. The method is also key. These types of drone strikes have a very low barrier of entry, are extremely hard to defend against, and finding the perpetrators is also extremely challenging.

With this in mind, we are likely to see much more of these kinds of operations in the future, regardless of the exact circumstances surrounding this one.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com