How Ukraine is Destroying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet


While the battlefield stalemate in Russia’s war against Ukraine has allowed the deadliest conflict since World War II to fade from the headlines, Ukrainian military strategists have quietly dealt devastating blows to Russia’s Black Sea fleet — without a single warship to their name.

Russia’s vaunted naval forces have dominated maritime civilian and military activity in the Black Sea since Crimea became the southern pillar of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1783.

But in less than two years of fierce defiance of the Kremlin invasion, Ukraine has destroyed or disabled half of the Black Sea Fleet, deflected Kremlin attempts to land troops and armor onto Ukrainian shores, chased Russian naval commanders from their base in Sevastopol and inspired allies to envision a path to victory for the underdog defenders.

Western intelligence and defense analysts have documented the systematic withering of Russia’s southern navy. The loss of four of the Kremlin’s most powerful warships and destruction of vessels on the high seas, in ports, and in shipyards has allowed Ukraine to regain control of safe shipping lanes for vital grain exports, restoring an important economic lifeline and delivering sustenance to millions living in famine-struck regions of the developing world.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale, multi-front invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine’s navy was then as now all but non-existent. Kremlin forces destroyed Kyiv’s meager inheritance of a share of the Soviet Union’s Sevastopol-based naval assets during Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Yet without combat aircraft or a single vessel of war-fighting capability, Ukraine has used unmanned drones and shore-launched cruise missiles to sink 25 naval warships and damage 15 others seriously enough to take them out of the war theater for yearslong repairs. That has eliminated half of the 80 warships of the Black Sea Fleet when Putin ordered the invasion and at least 40 percent of the naval tonnage, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The stunning and, for the Kremlin, embarrassing attacks began with Kyiv forces sinking the flagship of the Russian fleet, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, less than two months after the start of Putin’s air, land and sea offensive.

Ukrainian forces have relied on unmanned aerial and sea drones to take down vessels in most spheres of naval operations, including patrol boats, cruisers, landing ships and a submarine.

Russian naval strategists have decamped from occupied but vulnerable Crimea to naval facilities on the Russian shores of the Black Sea or to protected ports and shipyards in territory seized from Ukraine and, at least for now, firmly under the Russian occupiers’ control.

“The Black Sea Fleet operations have been greatly complicated, if not paralyzed,” Ukraine’s naval and armed forces spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk said last week.

The Kyiv military’s assessment of the maritime achievements coincided with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s announcement of a change of command of the armed forces. In an expressed desire to inject fresh leadership, Zelensky appointed to the top military post Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, who led the successful defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv in the first weeks after the Russian invasion. He replaces Gen. Valery Zaluzhny who had led the Ukrainian defense since the start of the war.

Ukraine’s prowess in the Black Sea has been overshadowed throughout the war by advances and retreats on the battlefields of eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin failed to take Kyiv and replace the elected president and parliamentary leadership with Kremlin puppets, forcing his ground forces’ retreat within weeks of the invasion. Russian forces regrouped and advanced to take more territory in the east and south of the country, adding to areas occupied by Russian mercenaries in 2014. Ukrainian forces recovered much of the lost ground in the summer and fall of 2022.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters have traded control of large swaths of Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk provinces over the past two years, with the balance of territorial control barely changed. Russia is estimated to occupy about 18% of Ukraine’s territory, more than half of which it has held for a decade through collaborative Russian nationalists and mercenaries in the volatile regions.

In contrast with the stalemated ground war, Ukraine has succeeded in disrupting secure operation of Russian warships along Ukraine’s coast from the Kherson gateway to Crimea westward to the Danube River border with Romania. Ukrainian saboteurs have also targeted Putin’s Crimean Bridge over the Kerch Strait, linking Russian territory on the eastern shore of the Strait with a bridge Putin built to provide a transport link for delivering weapons and supplies to Crimea. The bridge has been bombed several times, most notably on Putin’s 70th birthday in October 2022.

“Ukraine’s operational success in the northwestern Black Sea offers a beacon of light which, with Western support, could chart the way to eventual victory over Russia,” CEPA, the Center for European Policy Analysis, reported in a Feb. 5 publication Black Sea Successes and Ukraine’s Path to Victory.

Ukrainians’ deterrence of Russian attempts to land troops and armor on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast in the first weeks of the invasion two years ago prevented Putin’s forces from taking Ukraine’s grain-shipping facilities in Odesa and elsewhere on its western coast, wrote Francisco de Borja Lasheras, a Harvard-educated European foreign and national security analyst for CEPA and security policy advisor to former Spanish governments.

Russian naval forces patrolling further out to sea imperiled Ukrainian shipment of grain to African and other countries suffering drought-induced shortages of vital staples until the Black Sea Grain Initiative. That commitment by Moscow and Kyiv to protect the security of designated shipping lanes from Ukrainian ports to the Bosporus took effect in July 2022 after the United Nations and Turkey brokered the deal.

Putin refused to extend the initiative a year later, threatening famine for millions in impoverished countries amid global shortages and inflated prices of key staples.

Ukraine’s success in diminishing Russia’s naval superiority has allowed Kyiv to resume its vital grain trade, reviving an important source of income as well as continuing to feed the world’s hungry. According to the European Commission, Ukraine supplies 10% of the world’s wheat, 15% of corn, 13% of barley and 50% of sunflower oil.

Ukraine’s resumed grain shipments have so far been unimpeded by Russian warships. The Kremlin has ceased deploying vessels to harass or intimidate merchant shipping, likely in fear of further losses of critical naval infrastructure.

“Ukraine pushed back forcefully at Russia’s attempt to resume its blockade and opened a unilateral maritime corridor that hugged the shore all the way to NATO territory,” the CEPA report explains, referring to Ukraine’s Black Sea border with Romania. “While this corridor started with mostly outward traffic, it has substantially increased shipment volumes, reaching close to 20 million tons of agricultural and non-agricultural cargoes in its first six months, thus nearing pre-war levels.”

Ukrainian shipments are on course to surpass the 30 million tons transported under the grain deal before Russia reneged on renewal. The first shipments after Putin announced he was withdrawing left Ukraine ports at an operational loss due to wary vessel insurers but have returned to profitability in the absence of Russian attacks on carriers. Among the cargo ships plying the Black Sea corridor out of Ukraine are those owned or operated by shippers affiliated with China. Beijing’s Communist government has not joined Western sanctions on Russia nor withdrawn diplomatic alliance with Putin despite widespread international condemnation of Kremlin aggression in Ukraine. Russia’s restraint in allowing the grain shipments to proceed likely reflects Putin’s fear of alienating one of his few remaining allies.

In his report to the European think tank, Lasheras defined key lessons to be drawn from Ukraine’s reclaiming of control over its vital Black Sea coastal operations:  Only the steady application of military pressure, not diplomacy, will eventually deter and contain the Russian threat and that Russia was not, is not, and will not be interested in deals that help sustain Ukraine’s export economy.

“The Kremlin wants to bomb Ukraine into submission, destroying its economy and all the civilian infrastructure it can, so these lifelines are priority targets,” his analysis concluded. “Hence Moscow’s cynical bombing of Ukrainian ports while it (Russia) made profits in the markets, often with stolen grain, in the worst tradition of parasitic imperialism.”

After the sinking and significant damage to Russian naval forces late last year, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Russia had lost 20% of its fleet in four months alone.

“Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea is now challenged,” Shapps said in a tweet after Ukraine struck two missile-carrying corvettes and two amphibious landing ships last fall.

Ships Ukraine has destroyed since the start of the war:

  • March 24, 2022 – Saratov, a landing ship that can carry 440 troops, 20 tanks and 45 armored vehicles. Sunk with a short-range ballistic missile while docked in Berdiansk in then-occupied Zaporizhzhia province.
  • April 14, 2022 – Moskva, guided-missile cruiser and Russian BSF flagship. Provided air cover for other ships and assisted in capture of Snake Island. Sunk with Neptune missiles fired from shore.
  • June 17, 2022 – Vasily Bekh rescue tugboat, used to transport ammunition and personnel to Snake Island. First vessel sunk with Western-supplied anti-ship rockets, two Harpoon missiles.
  • August 4, 2023 – Olenegorsky Gornyak, a tank-landing ship for delivering cargo and ground troops. Capacity to carry 10 tanks and 350 troops.
  • September 13, 2023 – Minsk, a landing ship functionally destroyed while undergoing maintenance at Sevmorzadov shipyard in Crimea, dismantled for parts a month later. Kilo 636-class submarine Rostov-on-Don in the same port also suffered catastrophic damage in the strike where it was undergoing repairs.
  • Nov. 4, 2023 – Askold, a new Russian ship identified by Western intelligence as a Karakurt-class corvette intended to carry Kalibr cruise missiles though unarmed and yet to be deployed. Ukraine hit the vessel at Crimea’s Zaliv shipyard, reportedly with French-supplied Storm Shadow missiles.
  • Dec. 26, 2023 – Novocherkassk, a tank-landing ship in the Crimean port of Feodosia, struck with Ukrainian air-launched missiles and captured on video listing in a fireball.
  • Jan. 31, 2024 – Ivanovets missile-carrying corvette, struck by satellite-controlled naval drones. Vessel captured on intelligence video as it listed and sank stern-first.


Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Russia’s lack of success defending their ships against drones makes me wonder how our Navy would fare in a modern conflict with a determined adversary.


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