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Ukraine says its drones damaged a Russian warship, showing Kyiv’s growing naval capability

Published: August 4, 2023, 7:59am

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine said its sea drones struck a major Russian port Friday and damaged a warship in an attack that underlined Kyiv’s growing capabilities as the Black Sea becomes an increasingly important battleground in the war.

The strike on Novorossiysk — which halted maritime traffic for a few hours — marks the first time a commercial Russian port has been targeted in the nearly 18-month-old conflict. The Black Sea port — which hosts a naval base, shipbuilding yards and an oil terminal and is key for exports — lies about 110 kilometers (about 60 nautical miles) east of Crimea, where Russia’s Defense Ministry said it thwarted another attack overnight.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the country’s navy carried out the attack that damaged Olenegorsky Gornyak, a landing vessel of the Russian navy, according to an official with the security service. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give the information to the media, said the attack made the ship unable to perform combat missions. Images posted on social media showed the ship listing.

Friday’s attack is the latest in a series of strikes inside Russia. It also reflects an increase in fighting in the Black Sea following Moscow’s withdrawal from a deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain through the waterway. On Wednesday, Russian drones caused significant damage and a huge fire at grain facilities in the Odesa region. A day earlier, the Russian military said Kyiv’s forces tried to attack two of its patrol vessel at sea southwest of the Russian-controlled city of Sevastopol in Moscow-annexed Crimea.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, heralded the latest attack, saying it showed “drones are changing the rules of the game … and ultimately destroying the value of the Russian fleet.”

Russia’s far superior navy has controlled the seas in the war so far. Its ships have regularly launched cruise missiles at major ports and cities across Ukraine, and they have largely blockaded the country’s coast as well as mining the Black Sea, making passage through it treacherous. Podolyak’s remarks and other recent attacks in the sea and on the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia could indicate Ukraine is trying to change that dynamic.

With the latest assault, “Kyiv showed that it can attack any vessel of the Black Sea Fleet, no matter the distance,” said Ukrainian military analyst Roman Svytan.

The end of the grain deal, under which ships carrying food from Ukrainian ports were promised safe passage, “untied Kyiv’s hands,” he said, predicting the frequency of attacks on Russian ships would only increase.

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While Friday’s attack served as an important morale booster for Ukraine, challenging Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea will be hard for Ukraine.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet has nearly 50 warships and seven submarines along with a large number of support vessels, dwarfing the capability of Ukraine, which said it lost more than 80% of its naval capabilities after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Despite Russia’s superiority, Ukrainian missiles sank the fleet’s flagship, the Moskva missile cruiser, and also destroyed the Saratov landing ship in the occupied port of Berdyansk. Several more have been reportedly damaged.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the navy fended off Friday’s attack, saying that its ships destroyed two Ukrainian sea drones. Footage published on Russian social media channels appeared to show a ship firing into the sea and a burning object exploding.

But other images that appeared on messaging app channels claimed to show the Olenegorsky Gornyak listing to one side and some Russian military bloggers confirmed that it was damaged. Ukrainian media outlets also carried footage they said was from a drone’s onboard camera showing it approaching the Russian landing ship.

The Associated Press could not verify the videos.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the attack during a conference call with reporters.

The Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which operates an oil terminal in Novorossiysk, said maritime traffic was halted for a few hours but that its facilities were not damaged. The regional governor said there were no casualties.

Minutes after confirming the attack on the Black Sea port early Friday morning, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it had also repelled another attack by Ukraine on Crimea. The ministry said air defense systems shot down 10 drones and jammed another three.

Videos shared on Russian social media channels reportedly from around the city of Feodosia showed what appeared to be air defense systems working, as well as loud explosions.

Last month, another Ukrainian attack struck a key bridge that links Russia to the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014 and serves a key artery for sending military and civilian supplies to Crimea and sustaining Russia’s war effort.

In other developments:

— The Moscow-appointed governor of the Russia-occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, said several Ukrainian drones were shot down near the Sea of Azov port city of Berdyansk during the night.

— Ukraine’s prosecutors office accused Russian forces of hitting the Kherson region with a guided bomb, wounding a local resident. The office published photos from the attack, showing a deep crater and damaged houses.

— Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, met with Zelenskyy on Friday.