A loud explosion broke the 2am quiet of the Russian port of Tuapse on the Black Sea. The Ukrainian drone strike on February 28 received little attention in world media. Yet it is important in understanding the shifting naval war.
The residents of Tuapse, north of Sochi, might be forgiven for thinking that they are too far away from the front lines to be directly affected in this way. The port is around 270 miles from Ukrainian held territory north of Mariupol, and realistically much further from the drone’s launch site.
The implication is that now, no Russian port in the Black Sea is safe from Ukrainian strikes.
How Ukraine Is Pushing Back Across The Horizon
This is a major change from the opening months of the war when the Russian Navy dominated the sea. Ukraine had little or no means to fight back. But with innovation and determination the Ukrainians have found ways to push the Russians into a defensive stance. This includes both locally designed and Western supplied weapons. Among the latter, Harpoon and Brimstone missiles are noteworthy.
The Harpoon anti-ship missiles do not threaten the Russian Navy in its ports however. Ukraine has had to develop its own means to strike naval targets further over the horizon.
Its uncrewed surface vessels (USVs), popularly known as ‘maritime drones’ have struck Sevastopol on Crimea on October 29 2022 and even Novorossiysk on November 18 2022. This already caused the Russian Navy to rethink its port defenses. They are now concentrating more of their forces and valuable air defenses further from the front line. Now the Tuapse attack sends the message that no port is safe.
Tuapse is a strategic target south of Russian the naval base at Novorossiysk and north of the important city of Sochi. It is a major oil terminal, which is what the Ukrainian drones appeared to target. The attack, reportedly by two uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) caused a large fire at the Rosneft oil terminal.
Russia has already responded by deploying a Pantsir air defense system to the quay at Tuapse. We cannot be sure where this valuable asset was pulled from, but we can now we certain that it’s not on the front lines.
The Tuapse attack adds to previous maritime drone attacks and will further dilute and distract Russian defenses. In the same way that President Putin has stoked fears of an attack in Moldova, diverting Ukrainian forces away from the front line, Tuapse pulls Russian defenses further south. Russia now has to rethink defenses not just in Tuapse, but along the entire Black Sea coast.
Russian forces remain much more powerful in the Black Sea. Their cruise missiles are still a massive equipment advantage. But the Ukrainians show that it is not just what you use but how, when and where you use it. A couple of small drones can make a big splash.
Like many of the events which shape the war in the Black Sea, the UAV attack on Tuapse may quickly be forgotten by the media. But analysts will be watching for its ripples for the rest of the war.