Naval Drones: Ukraine’s secret weapon in the Battle of the Black Sea
Ukraine's rapidly evolving fleet of domestically produced sea drones is revolutionizing our understanding of naval warfare (photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Strategic Industries)

On the very first morning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, a huge Russian warship loomed over the Black Sea horizon and approached the tiny Ukrainian garrison on Snake Island with an ultimatum: “Lay down your arms and surrender, or you will be bombed.” Although hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the handful of Ukrainian troops stationed on the island had no intention of complying. “Russian warship, go f*** yourself,” they replied.

This instantly iconic response would soon echo across Ukraine and around the world, becoming an unofficial wartime slogan that captured the indomitable fighting spirit of Ukraine’s popular resistance to the Russian invasion. Within days, it was adorning T-shirts, billboards, bumper stickers, and fridge magnets, while serving as inspiration for an entire genre of patriotic memes on social media. The incident even prompted Ukraine’s national postal service to issue a commemorative stamp.

The defiance displayed by the defenders of Snake Island set the tone for the war at sea, which has seen Ukraine achieve a frankly stunning string of successes against the Russian Black Sea Fleet despite not possessing a fleet of its own. Indeed, while media attention remains firmly focused on the largely static front lines and appalling casualties of the conflict in mainland Ukraine, there are mounting indications that Ukraine is now winning the Battle of the Black Sea.

Black Sea Blockade

The war at sea actually began more than a week before the onset of the full-scale invasion, with Russian warships imposing a naval blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in mid-February 2022 under the guise of routine exercises. At first, the maritime confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow looked to be a foregone conclusion. With no navy to speak of, Ukraine appeared to have little chance of challenging Russia in the Black Sea. Instead, most expected the Kremlin’s mighty Black Sea Fleet to remain largely unchallenged. However, it soon became apparent that such conclusions were premature.

Sinking the Moskva

In April 2022, Ukraine struck its first major blow in the war at sea by sinking the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, using two Ukrainian-produced Neptune anti-ship missiles. News of this naval victory caused a sensation. Coming so soon after Russia’s defeat in the Battle of Kyiv, it did much to consolidate support for Ukraine and helped convince the international community that the Ukrainian military was far more capable that had previously been assumed. The symbolism of the Moskva sinking was particularly strong, as this was the same warship that had attacked Snake Island on the first day of the war and been told exactly where to go.

Two months later in June 2022, Ukrainian troops launched an audacious operation to liberate Snake Island itself. The operation served as a major morale boost for Ukraine. Given the strategic importance of Snake Island’s location, it also marked a significant shift in the balance of power in the northwestern Black Sea and was an important step toward reducing the Russian threat to merchant shipping sailing from the country’s major ports.

Targeting Occupied Crimea

Summer 2022 saw the first Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian military targets in occupied Crimea, including attacks on the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Ukraine’s air war against Russian occupation forces in Crimea has continued to gain momentum ever since.

Britain’s decision in May 2023 to provide Ukraine with cruise missiles was a landmark moment, significantly increasing the firepower potential of Ukrainian attacks in Crimea. Within weeks, France had followed suit. As a result of these British and French deliveries, Ukraine was able to dramatically expand its bombing campaign. Headline-grabbing incidents have included the destruction of a Russian submarine in dry dock and an audacious strike in the heart of Sevastopol that left the Black Sea Fleet Headquarters in partial ruins.

More recently, the arrival of American-supplied ATACMS long-range missiles in significant quantities has further enhanced Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian targets in Crimea. In the weeks following an April 2024 breakthrough vote in the US Congress confirming a major new military aid package for Ukraine, Kyiv was able to conduct a number of suspected ATACMS attacks on airfields, Russian air defenses, and weapons stores on the occupied peninsula.

Revolutionizing Naval Warfare

While missiles supplied by Kyiv’s partners have played an important part in making the Russian occupation of Crimea increasingly untenable, Ukraine’s secret weapon in the Battle of the Black Sea has undoubtedly been the country’s naval drone fleet. Since 2022, Ukrainian drones have struck a series of Russian warships at sea, at dock, or close to port, with drone operators often patiently pursuing their prey over a number of days. These attacks, many of which are masterminded by Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence agency and SBU secret service, have sent many targeted warships to the bottom of the Black Sea, while forcing others out of action for extended periods.

The development of Ukraine’s naval drone capabilities was in part undertaken as a response to Russia’s overwhelming advantage at sea. The division of Soviet naval assets following the 1991 collapse of the USSR had already left newly independent Ukraine with a modest number of warships. This rusting fleet was further depleted following Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Ukrainian naval planners saw maritime drones as a good way to harness the country’s strong tech traditions and even out the odds against Russia’s large but increasingly outdated conventional naval forces.

Ukraine operates a number of domestically-produced naval drone models with different capabilities. They are remotely controlled and can travel at speeds of up to 80 kilometers an hour while carrying a payload sufficient to sink a warship. The small size and high maneuverability of Ukrainian naval drones makes them particularly challenging to intercept, while plastic construction materials make them difficult for radar to pick up. Some models claim to have a range of up to 800 kilometers, enabling them to strike targets throughout whole of the northern Black Sea. Ukraine demonstrated this expanded reach in late 2023, carrying out a number drone strikes again Russian vessels close to the port of Novorossiysk on the eastern Black Sea coast.

Russian Fleet Retreats

Russia has responded to Ukraine’s naval drone threat by withdrawing the bulk of its warships from occupied Crimea. Russian naval commanders also keep vessels away from the Ukrainian coastline and limit their time in the open sea. In a clear sign that Russia is not anticipating any improvements at sea in the near future, Kremlin officials confirmed plans in October 2023 for the construction of a new naval base in Russian-occupied Georgia, far away from Ukrainian naval drones.

The sinking of Russian warships will not prove decisive in a land war, of course. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s success in the Battle of the Black Sea is having a meaningful impact on the course of the wider war. As well as making it increasingly hard for the Russian navy to maintain a presence in the northwestern Black Sea, Ukrainian naval drones are also hampering Russia’s ability to bomb Ukraine using the Black Sea Fleet’s missile-carrying warships. While naval vessels played a key role in Russia’s bombing campaign of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure during the first winter of the war, there has been a noticeable decline in cruise missile launches from the Black Sea over the past year.

Ukraine’s successes at sea have also helped to disrupt the logistics of the Russian army in Crimea and southern Ukraine. Throughout the invasion, Moscow has used the Black Sea Fleet as a workhorse to ferry munitions and other military equipment to Crimea and through the Azov Sea to Russian-occupied southern Ukraine. It is no coincidence that Russia’s fleet of large amphibious landing ships have been key targets for Ukrainian naval drones.

Maritime Economic Lifeline

Crucially, sinking so many Russian warships has enabled Ukraine to break the blockade of the country’s Black Sea ports and resume maritime exports to global markets. The reopening of merchant shipping lanes for the country’s vast agricultural industry represents a financial lifeline for Ukraine, which is struggling to keep its battered economy afloat and fund the war effort. Many were skeptical that Ukraine could unilaterally defy the Russian blockade, but the results speak for themselves. In the six months up to May 2024, Ukrainian exports of grain and oilseed through the country’s Black Sea ports returned to prewar levels. This achievement would not have been possible without the game-changing role played by Ukraine’s naval drones.

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