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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Luke Harding in Odesa

‘A new form of warfare’: how Ukraine reclaimed the Black Sea from Russian forces

People pass by the Transfiguration Cathedral in Ukraine, which was damaged by a Russian missile strike on 23 July.
People pass by the Transfiguration Cathedral in Ukraine, which was damaged by a Russian missile strike on 23 July. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

It was a moment of humiliation for Moscow. The headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet – a building of elegant white columns overlooking the Crimean port of Sevastopol – was ablaze. Smoke billowed into a blue sky. First one, and then a second Storm Shadow missile slammed into its roof. Video captured the impact: a precise, deadly, thunderous strike.

The attack on 22 September killed 34 officers, including Viktor Sokolov, the fleet’s commander, according to Ukraine. Russia denied this, releasing footage of Sokolov, suggesting he was still alive. Whatever the truth of the admiral’s fate, the blow deep into enemy territory was of major significance. It was further proof that Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, 19 months on, had not gone to plan.

On land, Kyiv’s counteroffensive has made slow progress. Ukrainian troops have run into formidable Russian obstacles. But on water, it is a success story. Largely unnoticed, Ukraine has reclaimed the Black Sea at least in part, by turning it into a no-go zone for Russia’s bristling warships – no mean feat given that Ukraine has no navy to speak of, and a handful of old jets.

In Sevastopol, a naval exodus has occurred. Two frigates and three attack submarines have left port and moved east to the safer Russian harbour of Novorossiysk, according to satellite data. Five large landing ships, a patrol boat, and small missile vessels have joined them there. A cluster of other boats have sailed from Sevastopol to Feodosia, a port on Crimea’s eastern side.

Driven from Sevastopol, Russia has reportedly signed a deal for a new naval base. It will be located in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, further along the Black Sea coast. On Thursday the region’s leader, Aslan Bzhania, said the permanent facility would be built in the “near future”. “This is all aimed at increasing the level of defence capability of both Russia and Abkhazia,” he told the Izvestia newspaper.

A view of the Port of Odesa.
A view of the Port of Odesa Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

Speaking this week, James Heappey, the UK armed forces minister, said Russia’s Black Sea fleet had suffered a “functional defeat”. “It has been forced to disperse to ports from which it cannot have an effect on Ukraine,” he told the Warsaw security forum. The liberation of Ukraine’s waters was “every bit as important” as the counteroffensive last year in Kharkiv oblast, during which Kyiv regained territory, Heappey added.

According to Ukraine’s former defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, drones have been vital to winning back the Black Sea. Reznikov likened the boom in indigenous drone production to the early days of Silicon Valley, when Steve Jobs built the first Apple computers in his garage. He said: “This war is the last conventional land one. The wars of the future will be hi-tech. The Black Sea is like a polygon. We’re seeing serious combat testing.”

Reznikov said Ukraine was making an array of uncrewed aerial vehicles, as well as drones that travelled on sea and underwater. There was “competition” between rival outfits – Ukraine’s navy, special forces, GUR and SBU intelligence agencies – as to who made the best drone. “We have no serious fleet or naval capability. But we can hit them with drones,” he said.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Reznikov’s predecessor as defence minister, said Kyiv had pioneered “a new form of warfare”. It cost $10,000-$100,000 (£8,260-£82,600) to build a sea drone filled with explosives. Released in “swarms”, they targeted Russian ships costing hundreds of millions of dollars. “It’s an extremely asymmetric way of fighting enemy boats. This is true of cost and time. You can’t build a new ship quickly. They are huge platforms,” he said.

After annexing Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin became the Black Sea’s dominant power. It declared large areas off limits to Ukrainian ships including much of the Sea of Azov, around the port of Mariupol. On the first day of the invasion, Moscow bombarded and occupied Snake Island, a strategic territory near the Danube estuary. Russian troops swept into the southern city of Kherson, practically unopposed, and besieged nearby Mykolaiv.

Street sellers in central Odesa.
Street sellers in central Odesa Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

From spring 2022, however, Ukraine fought back. It thwarted a Russian amphibious landing in Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest and most strategic Black Sea port. That April, Kyiv sank the Moskva, Russia’s flagship carrier, using two Neptune cruise missiles. Then in June, Russia was forced to leave Snake Island. This was down to Harpoon anti-ship missiles, supplied by the west and deployed from the coast, Reznikov said.

These setbacks led Russia to agree a “grain corridor”, brokered by Turkey and the UN, in which merchant ships departed and arrived in Odesa and two other ports. Ukraine’s forces, meanwhile, stepped up long-range attacks. “We started hitting them in an unconventional way, with rockets and drones,” Zagorodnyuk said. One target was the Kerch bridge linking occupied Crimea with Russia. In October 2022, a lorry bomb blew up part of its road section.

Slowly but surely, Russian naval vessels found themselves squeezed. In autumn 2022, Reznikov said he had swapped secret WhatsApp messages with Ben Wallace, then the UK’s defence minister. They discussed the provision of game-changing Storm Shadow missiles. He said: “We used a special code: whisky. I would ask about Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie. One day Ben said to me: ‘Strong whisky is coming.’”

Recently, Ukraine has pummelled Russian bases in Crimea. It knocked out at least two S-400 air defence systems and a radar station. In September, Ukrainian special forces seized gas drilling rigs west of Crimea. Next, a missile slammed into Sevastopol’s shipyard. It damaged a Russian landing ship and submarine that was undergoing repair. It was the first time since 1945 that Moscow had lost a submarine in combat. Days later, Kyiv hit the Black Sea fleet HQ.

These various attacks have had dramatic consequences. As Zagorodnyuk said: “They’ve run away.” Significant Russian naval staffers have moved to Novorossiysk, as well as numerous ships.

Ukrainian officials are more cautious. Dmytro Pletenchuk, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s navy, said Kyiv had achieved a “technical knock-down”. He stressed it was too early to write off Russia. “We are talking about a powerful grouping,” he said. Moscow had 30 warships, many smaller boats, and coastal vessels guarding the Kerch bridge. Five carrier ships and five Kilo-class submarines were able to unleash Kalibr cruise missiles on Ukrainian cities, he said.

On Wednesday, British intelligence said Russia was planning to sabotage the new humanitarian grain corridor, through which more than 30 ships have departed and arrived from Odesa and neighbouring ports. The Russian plan was to use its submarines to put sea mines in the middle of the channel. If a ship sank, Moscow would blame Ukraine. The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, described the tactic as “pernicious”.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is now relatively free to manoeuvre in the Black Sea. Earlier this week, a group of commandos from Ukrainian military intelligence landed on the Crimean coast in five amphibious boats. They raised a Ukrainian flag and killed Russian soldiers. A smaller number of “Ukrainian defenders” died in the special mission, spokesperson Andriy Yusov said. He added: “The operation to de-occupy Crimea continues.”

Security experts say winning back Crimea is essential to Ukrainian victory, and to its progress on land. “If the Russians keep Crimea they can target the whole mainland of Ukraine,” said Alexander Khara, deputy chair of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies. Moscow faced a dilemma, he said. The port of Novorossiysk was vulnerable to drone attack, and Russia had too few air defence systems to protect all its naval assets, he said.

“The idea of Russian invincibility in the Black Sea has been shattered,” said Yevgeniya Gaber, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “There has been a cognitive shift,” she said, and Ukraine’s allies were helping. It was unlikely British naval warships would patrol the Black Sea, a plan suggested on Sunday by the UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps. But the UK was helping in other ways, with reconnaissance and drone technology, Gaber said.

Ukrainian observers now dream of a new treaty of Paris – the 1856 deal that ended the Crimean War. It led to Russia’s diminishing influence in the region, after its defeat by the British, French and Ottoman empires. The treaty prohibited Russia from putting a navy in Sevastopol. “This war must end the same way, with the Black Sea fleet sunk, and Russia banned by international law from building a new one,” Zagorodnyuk said.

And what about Adm Sokolov? Ukrainian sources are increasingly confident he was killed last month, in the strike using Storm Shadow missiles. “The Russians can prove he is alive by making an interview with him,” Pletenchuk, the navy spokesperson, said.

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