In October of 2021, we wrote here in our space that drones were no longer the weapon of the future, because the so-called “future” had arrived. This was months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the subject became “pop” in the mainstream press, with a large amount of images distributed through social networks. Now, another frontier of the future of the war has been breached, with a Ukrainian maritime incursion using drones against Crimea’s main port, the city of Sevastopol.
In the early hours of last Saturday, seven naval drones were used for an attack on Sevastopol, a city of historic military importance on the Crimean peninsula and the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. According to the Russian authorities themselves, at least three naval drones were successful in reaching their targets. Images on social media showed the drones being fired upon by small arms, without a great articulation of defense against this new type of weapon.
The Russian government accused the United Kingdom of having collaborated with operation, providing intelligence and expertise. Russia has yet to make any direct accusations about the manufacturer of the drones, whether they were supplied by a Western country or whether they are Ukrainian-made. One of the videos circulating on social media points out possible damage to the frigate Admiral Makarov, a modern vessel, commissioned only in 2017. Russia has only admitted damage to a small minesweeper ship.
The coordinated attack with naval drones carried out by Ukraine is probably unprecedented in the story. This type of vessel already existed, of course, but still for testing or no combat use. At the end of August, for example, the Iranian navy released images of the intercept of a US naval drone in the Red Sea, but at that time it was a reconnaissance vessel. In addition to the novelty and the frontier of the future of the war, the episode has two important repercussions.
First, it further diminishes the already diminished Russian naval advantage in the Black Sea. Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has not been able to impose its material advantage in the waters shared with Ukraine. The biggest example of this was, of course, when the cruiser Moskva was sunk by Ukraine, a country that lacks substantial naval assets. Now, Crimea’s main naval base has had its security perimeter penetrated and at least one ship has been hit. All this for a country that doesn’t even have a navy.
Of course, in both cases, the Ukrainians probably relied on, at the very least, intelligence cooperation from Western countries. Possibly they also relied on Western material, such as, perhaps, the missiles used to sink the Moskva and, now, the drones used in the attack. Still, it’s amazing how vulnerable the Russian navy was in a theater of war where it was supposed to have undisputed supremacy from the start.
Second, Russia temporarily withdrew from the agreement on the transit of grain through the Black Sea. The agreement, signed at the end of July, was brokered by the UN and Turkey. According to the text, ships carrying Ukrainian grain would travel to Turkey, where they would be jointly inspected. The routes followed a pre-established corridor, where ships could not be attacked. In three months, more than 400 trips were carried out, transporting more than 9 million tons of Ukrainian grain.
The global importance of the agreement is due to the fact that that Russia and Ukraine are some of the biggest cereal producers in the world, with a large share of world production and trade in, for example, wheat. The agreement also involved fertilizers and other inputs for agricultural production. In recent weeks, Russia has claimed that part of the agreement was not being fulfilled and that the export of its products would be slow, compared to Ukrainian exports.
The reason for the Russian withdrawal from the agreement was based on in the accusation that the drones used by Ukraine in the attack would have used the naval corridor established for the security of civilian ships. The Russian prosecution also speculated that the drones could have been launched overboard from ships already in the corridor, undermining the agreement. In practice, a charge of perfidy against Ukrainians, when an apparently peaceful act in time of war is used to conceal an attack.
Ukraine denies these accusations and says that Russia has not provided any evidence. material. To strengthen the resumption of the cereals agreement, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, suspended his trip to Algiers, where he would participate in the Arab League summit. Whether that will work remains to be seen. What we already know is that another new field of warfare has been explored in the current conflict and that, soon, naval drones will be as discussed as aerial drones are.