Ukraine destroyed state-of-the-art Russian air defences in Crimea and captured two key towns near the eastern city of Bakhmut in the 82nd week of the war.
Ukrainian forces may also have put three modern Russian warships out of action, demonstrating an increasing ability to attack enemy assets at range while maintaining the momentum of their territorial gains.
Sea drones attack
Ukraine appears to have used naval drones to mount two separate attacks on Russian warships on September 14.
Ukraine’s Strategic Command claimed it struck two of Russia’s Vasily Bykov Project 22160-class patrol ships causing unspecified damage. The Ukrainian government released video footage of the Vasily Bykov, commissioned in 2018, firing at a surface drone as it apparently closes in for attack.
Russia’s defence ministry said only that its Black Sea Fleet had “destroyed two unmanned semi-submersible boats… in the southwestern part of the Black Sea”, belonging to Ukraine.
Separately, the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet reported that a naval drone had caused damage to the rear starboard hull of a Bora-class guided missile corvette, the Samum, near the entrance to Sevastopol port, forcing it to be towed for repairs “with a roll to starboard”.
“For this attack, the SBU [Ukraine’s secret service] used an experimental model of a marine drone, which is capable of operating in a storm, hiding from detection behind high waves,” Ukrainska Pravda reported. “During the special operation, the height of the waves reached 1.5-2 metres,” the news outlet added.
Russia’s defence ministry said the Samum had successfully defended itself and destroyed the “unmanned naval boat”, but photographs circulated online showed the Samum being towed by two tugboats.
A day later, Ukraine reportedly attacked another Russian patrol boat, the Askold, with unknown results.
Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, called the attack on the Samum “one of the most well executed and planned operations of this war so far”, adding, “Ukraine is not only holding its own in the seapower war – it is actually winning it”.
Long-distance attacks: Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Crimea
Ukraine has been stepping up attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and its base in Crimea, at Sevastopol.
On September 12, Ukraine launched missiles and drones to successfully hit the Russian landing ship, Minsk, and a Kilo-class submarine docked at Sevastopol for repairs.
The war at sea has escalated since July 17. Ukraine used unmanned surface drones to damage the Kerch Bridge – the second time it succeeded in doing so – connecting Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, to the Russian mainland.
Russia pulled out of a UN-backed agreement in July that had allowed Ukraine to export many thousands of tonnes of grain from its blockaded Black Sea ports. After pulling out of the deal, Russia warned that it would use its naval power to stop Black Sea exports by Ukraine.
Russia has since struck Ukrainian ports and grain silos on the Danube river in a clear effort to prevent exports across the river to Romania and onward through European overland.
Ukraine has responded by intensifying long-distance attacks against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and against Crimea.
Ukraine destroyed a Russian state-of-the-art S-400 ‘Triumf’ air defence missile system in Crimea on August 23, and two days later used a drone swarm to attack the Russian 126th Guards Coastal Defence Brigade of the Black Sea Fleet near Perevalne in Crimea.
On September 14, Ukraine destroyed another S-400 battery, near Yevpatoria, a western Crimean port. Russia said only that it had shot down 11 drones in Yevpatoria, but geolocated footage showed plumes of smoke in the area of the reported attack.
A source with Kyiv’s secret service told Ukrainian Pravda that a combination of unmanned aerial drones and Neptune missiles were used in the attack, with the drones hitting the Russian air defence battery’s antennae and the missiles striking its launchers.
The combination of aerial and surface drones with missiles, as used in Yevpatoria and Sevastopol, is becoming a hallmark of Ukrainian long-distance attacks which military analysts say points to evolving sophistication of strategy.
According to reports, the attack on the S-400 missile defence system in Yevpatoria could leave Russia with just three S-400 batteries protecting the occupied Crimean peninsula.
“If the Ukrainians can keep it up and continue to sink Russian shipping in Sevastopol, they could force the Black Sea Fleet to rebase to Russia, which would be a key step in their plan to seize back Crimea,” O’Brien said.
Ukraine’s pushback against the Russian fleet appeared to be having results. Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said five merchant vessels had docked in Ukrainian grain ports and departed with cargoes since August 15.
Ukrainian officials say the attacks on the Russian navy will continue, and that the Black Sea Fleet is already keeping its ships constantly on the move between Crimea and Russian naval bases due to fear of attack.
Ukrainian forces captured the town of Andriivka, five kilometres south of Bakhmut, on September 14, Ukraine’s general staff said.
Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade said that it conducted “a lightning operation” which surrounded the Russian garrison at Andriivka, cut it off from the main force, and in two days destroyed “almost all the infantry of the 72nd [Separate Motorised Rifle] Brigade, together with officers and a significant amount of equipment”.
Since the Russian capture of Bakhmut in late May, Ukraine has been slowly flanking the city to the north and south. Three days after the recapture of Andriivka, Ukrainian troops hoisted their flag over the neighbouring town of Klishchiivka, also south of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said the liberation of Andriivka and Klishchiivka has also destroyed the combat capabilities of two elite airborne Russian formations, the 31st Guards VDV Brigade, and the 83rd Guards VDV Brigade.
Geolocated footage showed that Ukrainian troops were also advancing near Rozdolivka, northwest of Bakhmut.
“The liberation of Klishchiivka, as well as continued Ukrainian tactical gains northwest of Bakhmut, are tactical gains of strategic significance because they are allowing Ukrainian forces to fix a considerable portion of Russian airborne [VDV] elements in the Bakhmut area,” Washington, DC-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said.
The ISW believes that the military resources Russia has thrown into holding Bakhmut for reasons of political prestige have enabled Ukraine to poke holes in well-prepared Russian defences on the southern front lines, particularly western Zaporizhia.
There, Ukrainian forces were advancing west of Robotyne on September 16, a town they captured in late August, and west of Verbove, a town they are now focused on.
In this sector, Ukrainian and Western officials agree that Ukrainian troops have penetrated the first Russian defensive layer and are now attacking the second layer of Russia’s front line.
If they manage to break through Russian defences here, Ukrainian troops could in theory pour behind Russian positions.