Overnight drone attack deals another blow to Moscow’s fleet and demonstrates Kyiv’s expanding power in Black Sea

Dan Sabbagh, Pjotr Sauer and Luke Harding

1 February 2024

The Guardian


Ukrainian forces are believed to have sunk the Russian Ivanovets warship near occupied Crimea in a sophisticated overnight attack by multiple sea drones, demonstrating Kyiv’s expanding power in the Black Sea. Ukraine’s military intelligence published a grainy video showing several sea drones attacking the Russian corvette, ending with three dramatic images showing it listing, exploding and sinking into the water.

Ukraine said the boat had been sunk, as did leading Russian military bloggers. Hours later, western officials said they believed the warship had been destroyed in an attack that used long range uncrewed drones.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said in a statement: “As a result of a number of direct hits to the hull, the corvette was damaged, rolled to the stern, and sank. The value of the ship is approximately $60m-$70m [£47m-£55m].”

The Ivanovets is a small missile warship that usually holds a crew of about 40 people. It was not immediately clear if there were casualties, although it is highly likely given the speed and intensity of the attack.

Russia did not immediately comment on the incident, but a number of pro-Kremlin military bloggers close to Moscow confirmed that the Ivanovets warship was hit. “During the night, the enemy sank the Ivanovets, a large missile boat,” wrote influential Russian military blogger Anastasia Kashevarova on her telegram channel. A second blogger said it had been hit three times, and the crew “fought to the last” to keep the ship afloat.

Although Ukraine began the war with no navy, scuttling its only frigate to prevent it from falling into Russian hands, Kyiv has gradually pushed back on Moscow’s early dominance of the Black Sea through long range missile attacks and the innovative use of sea drones.

As a result, Moscow has been forced to withdraw the bulk of its Black Sea fleet from its main base in Crimea to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland – while Ukraine has been able to restart grain exports from Odesa and other nearby ports, bringing them back to prewar levels.

Created by the Ukrainians, the sea drones, based on modified jetskis, cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, operate in swarms and can be controlled remotely. The video released by the defence ministry is based on a selection of live video feeds from the drones, right up to the moment of impact in some cases.

Kyiv has carried out a number of attacks with sea drones, targeting military ships, the base in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk harbour. It has also sunk Russian warships using conventional means, most notably the flagship Moskva, hit with two Neptune cruise missiles in April 2022, forcing its crew of 500 to abandon ship.

Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service also said it used remotely controlled sea drones during an attack last year on the Russian-built Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland.

Two “Sea Baby” drones packed with 850kg of explosives each damaged the road bridge, forcing it to be temporarily closed. Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary, said last year that Russia had lost up to 20% of its Black Sea fleet during the last four months of the year.  Ukraine’s successes in the Black Sea offer a rare bright spot for the country, whose forces have moved on to the defensive across several fronts after a failed summer counteroffensive.

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s chief military commander, highlighted the country’s success in drone development in his first public comments since it emerged this week that the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had asked him to resign amid a series of political disagreements between the two. Zaluzhnyi declined to go, prompting speculation he would be sacked instead.

In an article for CNN, Zaluzhnyi said that while Moscow enjoyed a “significant advantage” over Kyiv because it had more soldiers and artillery, Ukraine had rapidly developed “new capabilities”, especially in the field of “unmanned weapons systems”. “They are proliferating at a breathtaking pace and the scope of their applications grows ever wider,” Zaluzhnyi wrote. “Crucially, it is these unmanned systems – such as drones – along with other types of advanced weapons, that provide the best way for Ukraine to avoid being drawn into a positional war, where we do not possess the advantage.”

The army chief argued that remote technology reduced the level of human losses and made Ukraine’s military less reliant on conventional armoured vehicles or “heavy materiel”. He added: “It opens up the possibility of inflicting sudden massive strikes against critical infrastructure facilities and communications hubs without deploying expensive missiles or manned aircraft.”