No Port in a Storm—Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Retreats to the East

Big vessels were sent to Novorossiysk, but is that out of range?

Russian warships in Sevastopol, Crimea, in July 2021. Stock photo.

Russian warships in Sevastopol, Crimea, in July 2021. Stock photo.

Like a rampaging bear fleeing from a swarm of angry hornets, the mighty Black Sea Fleet, once in undisputed control of the Black Sea, moved its big ships and three attack submarines from their home port in Sevastopol to safer waters 100 miles to the East. The bear had been stung too often by Ukraine’s cruise missiles and remote-controlled sea drones.

But was the port of Novorossiysk far enough away? Or had Russia merely clustered its ships once again, creating a target-rich environment for Ukraine, which keeps increasing the range of its weapons?

Just a couple of weeks ago, a cruise missile attack destroyed the top floors of the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Novorossiysk and, according to Ukrainian sources, decapitated the celebrated fleet by killing its commander and 34 other officers.

A little more than a month earlier, on August 4, 2023, a large Russian amphibious landing ship, Olenegorsky Gornyak, was hit in a nighttime attack not far from Novorossiysk by Ukrainian sea drones. At the time, 100 sailors were aboard. Video from the uncrewed surface vessel (USV) shows no splash from bullets fired at it, indicating that the Russians were caught by surprise. 

A Nightmare on the Black Sea

It’s been a nightmare over the last year and a half for the celebrated Black Sea Fleet, a nightmare that started with the sinking of its flagship, the guided missile destroyer, Moskva, in April 2022. Ukraine accomplished that with Neptune cruise missiles.

The Admiral Makarov, a frigate, took over the role of flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, only to be targeted in a concerted attack on the Black Fleet by 16 sea drones on October 29, 2022. The Makarov and a minesweeper, the Ivan Golubets, were damaged, though neither was sunk. Video footage from the deck of Russian ships, the Pvtlivyy frigate and the Vasily Bykov patrol ship, in what appears to be the same incident, shows automated gun placements furiously firing streams of bullets as well as frantic crews firing.

In September this year, three Storm Shadow cruise missiles were able to severely damage a large amphibious landing ship, the Minsk, and a submarine in Sevastopol. Although the loss of an amphibious landing craft may not have changed Russian tactics, the Rostov-on-Don was a Kilo-class diesel-powered submarine that launched cruise missiles into Ukraine.

How Many Sea Drones Does Ukraine Have?

Ukraine has built a fleet of an unknown number of remote-controlled, uncrewed surface vessels, all of them conceived in the present conflict. Their sleek shape and fast inboard engine make them the fastest vessels on the Black Sea, capable of a top speed of 42 knots, according to Ukrainian officers. The USVs are used as forward lookouts, reconnaissance, and most importantly as guided kamikaze boats—their hulls filled with explosives and with detonate-on-impact fuses on the prow.

No Port in a Storm

The retreat of the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol is quite a setback for Russia and may signal a decreasing Russian military presence in Crimea. Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and has since fortified it and used it as a forward base from which to conduct its military operations against Ukraine from the South.

Russia had planned on launching an amphibious attack on Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict, but because of the war going the way it was going, may have abandoned the plan, leaving the large amphibious ships in the harbor as big targets for Ukraine.

The Black Sea Fleet was owned and operated by Ukraine until most of it was taken by Russia after it seized Crimea. Sevastopol, practically in the center of the Black Sea, was ideally situated to control sea lanes and block grain exports from Ukraine as well as the import of arms into the country.

Ukraine has targeted Crimea and specifically Sevastopol with cruise missile launched from aircraft and from naval drones, both surface and submarine, launched hundreds of miles away from secret bases, thought to be in or near Odesa.

The Black Sea Fleet moves farther from the front, from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk. Image: Google Maps.

The Black Sea Fleet moves farther from the front, from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk. Image: Google Maps.

Red in the Face

Moving the Black Sea Fleet has got to be embarrassing for the Kremlin. Even if the move is temporary, as the Wall Street Journal indicates, the fleet being pushed out of the picture even for the time being is a remarkable achievement for Ukraine. Ukraine’s navy is tiny compared to Russia’s, as are its ships.

The apparent victory of Ukraine’s navy can be viewed as a validation of the big-ships-make-big-targets concept and ought to be a wake-up call to the superpowers, in particular the United States, whose Navy takes pride in having the biggest warships on the high seas—the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Ukraine’s naval success in the Black Sea is in sharp contrast to its counteroffensive on land, which has been mired in mud, pinned down by enemy fire, since its start over a year ago, with only small successes: a deserted and demolished village or two every now and then. But what is similar on land and sea is that, once again, big weapons are also big targets. So many armored vehicles have been lost by Ukraine’s army that the country has reconsidered using them, resorting to agile infantry units with portable weapons and as many drones as they can lay their hands on. Many of the drones are made by DGI, a Chinese company that has 90 percent of the commercial drone market, according to DroneAnalyst. But with China and Russia’s leaders now in friendly meetings, direct shipments of drones to Ukraine have been curtailed and Ukraine is having to buy DGI drones through intermediaries, according to the New York Times.

Ukrainian USV, aka sea drone washed up near the Russian naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea in September 2022. Image: X (Twitter).

Ukrainian USV, aka sea drone washed up near the Russian naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea in September 2022. Image: X (Twitter).

Although small commercial drones can be useful on land for reconnaissance and dropping small explosives or going Kamikaze, Ukraine builds its own much larger, more lethal drones for use in the Black Sea.

Image: Covert Shores, HI

Image: Covert Shores, HI

Sea drones, aka USVs, are 18 feet long and have a range of 500 miles. Equipped with cameras and communications (Starlink in most of the Black Sea), they are built with many off-the-shelf commercial parts and cost about $250,000. One of Ukraine’s USVs is a weaponized Jet Ski.

The low cost of even its most advanced drones, relative to crewed vessels, has allowed Ukraine to form an entire fleet of drones, the 385th Separate Brigade. The latest USV, the MAGURA V5, cruises at 22 knots but will reach 42 knots as it flies toward a target carrying 320 kg (700 lb) of explosives—more than enough to blow a hole in any Russian warship.