Ukraine’s unmanned surface vessels are running out of easy targets


May 6, 2024

Trench Art


The Ukrainian intelligence service’s drone boats blew up something in northern Crimea over the weekend. The big question is—what? A video the intelligence directorate posted online on Monday depicts the raid on Vuz’ka Bay from the point of view of one of the Magura V5 unmanned surface vehicles.

Weaving to dodge Russian gunfire, the 18-foot Magura sped toward its target—and exploded. If the target was what it appeared to be, there’s almost no chance anything was left as the smoke and debris settled.

That’s because the craft the Magura struck apparently was a 21-foot РПК 640 rescue boat belonging to the Russian emergencies ministry—and it was barely bigger than the Magura was.

Destroying any Russian vessel in occupied waters is a win for Ukraine. But the destruction of an unarmed rescue boat speaks to the relative dearth of larger targets as Ukraine’s sea-denial campaign in the western Black Sea grinds into its third year.

In the 27 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine and swiftly captured, sank or forced into hiding every single large warship in Kyiv’s service, the Ukrainian navy and intelligence service have re-armed with drones and missiles—and gone on the attack.

The Russian Black Sea fleet went to war with around three dozen large warships. The Ukrainians so far have damaged or sunk, using missiles and USVs, eight landing ships, a cruiser, a submarine, a supply vessel, a large rescue ship, several patrol boats, two missile-corvettes and a spy ship.

There’s not much the wider Russian navy can do to halt its steady degradation, as it can’t reinforce the Black Sea Fleet with large ships. Bigger vessels that can’t move by land or river must pass through the Bosporus Strait to enter the Black Sea. Turkey controls the strait and doesn’t allow combatants to transit during wartime.

But the Russians are trying to mitigate their losses by withdrawing the most valuable surviving ships from the most vulnerable Crimean ports. Today much of the Black Sea Fleet sails from ports in southern Russia, which are farther from Ukraine’s own naval bases—the embarkation points for the explosive drone boats—and thus safer.

It appears to be working, and now the Ukrainians are settling for sinking small rescue craft. “Since the fear of Ukrainian attacks forces the occupiers to hide large ships of the Black Sea Fleet away from the peninsula,” the Ukrainian intelligence service stated, “combat work continues against the high-speed maneuverable military vessels of the Russians, which are illegally in the Ukrainian territorial waters of Crimea.”

The problem with plinking Russian rescue boats is that they’re small enough to transport via river or even over land. That means they’re replaceable.