August 18, 2023

By Lauren Jackson and Ian Prasad Philbrick

The New York Times


Ukrainian forces have been fighting a brutal counteroffensive for the past two months, struggling to break through on land. Yet they have made progress on another front: the Black Sea, a vital shipping route for both sides of the war.

Last month, Russia withdrew from a deal that had allowed ships to safely export grain from Ukraine across the Black Sea. Within days, Moscow bombarded Ukrainian ports and threatened foreign cargo ships.

Ukraine responded by sending a new class of sea drones to attack Russian ships and infrastructure hundreds of miles away. Ukraine is hoping the drones will keep Russia from controlling the sea and, ultimately, allow shipments to resume. Yesterday, a civilian cargo ship sailed safely through Ukrainian waters in the Black Sea for the first time since the deal collapsed.

“The counteroffensive is often thought of too linearly as progress reclaiming territory,” said our colleague Marc Santora, who covers the war from Ukraine. “Just as important to the counteroffensive is Ukraine’s ability to cut Russia’s supply chain and attack Russia in deep positions. And that’s what is happening in the Black Sea.”

Even before invading, Russia sought to be the dominant force in the Black Sea, which is bordered primarily by Russia, Ukraine and three NATO countries. Upon invading, Russia decimated Ukraine’s much smaller navy and blockaded its ports.

While Ukraine fought back with missiles, sinking a major Russian ship, Moscow’s warships were mostly able to sail with impunity, launching missiles at Ukrainian towns and cities.

After both sides agreed to keep shipping routes across the water open in an international deal, an uneasy status quo held for nearly a year. Ukraine was able to export grain, propping up its economy and the global food supply, and Russia mostly refrained from attacking ports.

But the deal was shaky. Russia complained that the terms favored Ukraine — which had kept launching small-scale attacks against the Russian-held Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea — while international sanctions hurt the Russian economy. After repeated threats, Russia quit the agreement last month. The deal’s collapse drove up global grain prices and reopened the Black Sea as a major battleground.

“During the period when the corridor was opened for grain, the Black Sea faded a bit from international attention,” Marc said. “The closing of that corridor not only threatens global food supplies but ushered in a new, turbulent phase in the battle at sea.”

Russia has made it clear it wants to keep its economic stranglehold on Ukrainian exports. But unlike in the beginning of the war, Kyiv now has an agile weapon to fight back: an expanded fleet of sea drones.

Similar to unstaffed aerial drones, the small vessels, often no longer than 18 feet, can travel hundreds of miles to strike or surveil targets. They are fast and stealthy and do not require Ukrainian sailors to risk their lives. “The most common ones are sort of like unmanned speedboats that are packed with explosives,” Marc said.

Ukraine first used sea drones in a large-scale attack in October, striking Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol. After, Ukraine developed its fleet of more sophisticated craft — drones that could carry more explosives on board. This month, Ukrainian sea drones struck both a Russian warship near a naval port and a Russian oil tanker.

Each drone costs only about $250,000 and can damage or destroy multimillion-dollar Russian ships. Because the drones are relatively new, they are now forcing Russia to develop sophisticated defenses against them. It may have to devote more resources to protecting ships, ports and bridges from attacks that threaten its economy and its ability to resupply troops.

“We’re now in a place where Ukraine can increasingly fight back at sea,” Marc said.

The sea drones are an example of how Ukraine has gotten creative to outsmart a more powerful, better-armed opponent.

Wars often inspire naval innovations. The American Civil War saw the first clash between ironclad warships. World War I introduced widespread submarine warfare. World War II showed the superiority of aircraft carriers over battleships.

Even if it fails to turn the tide of the war, Ukraine’s pioneering use of sea drones may have a similar effect. It is the first country to use sea drones at large scale in war, and both sides have deployed large numbers of aerial drones to target artillery, drop bombs and attack cities. Ukraine’s attack on Sevastopol was the first in history to use both sea and aerial drones. “Every military expert I’ve spoken to said that moment is going to be studied for years to come as a moment where naval warfare globally shifted,” Marc said.