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The Russian navy’s battered Black Sea Flotilla is so desperate for hulls that it’s begun putting its sailors on boats it captured from the Ukrainians.
Photos that circulated online on Wednesday depict a Ukrainian Gyurza-class gunboat flying the Russian naval ensign in Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The gunboat is one of several of the Gyurzas that Russian forces captured when they swept across the eastern half of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast in the weeks following Russia’s wider attack on Ukraine starting the night of Feb. 23.
Seventy-five feet long and displacing 50 tons of water, the gun-armed Gyurza with its five crew isn’t a big or sophisticated vessel. But it’s not hard to understand why the Russian navy has taken a liking to the type.
The Black Sea Fleet is running out of patrol boats of its own. Turkey has blocked the Bosphorous Strait, the only sea route into the Black Sea, to incoming warships. This prevents the Kremlin from sending in fresh vessels—unless, of course, naval logisticians can figure out some way to transport smaller vessels over land by train.
The Russian fleet around Ukraine reportedly had eight 55-foot, gun-armed Raptor-class patrol boats when the wider war began. Today it might have just three undamaged Raptors left.
The Raptors escort landing craft and support vessels, defending them with their guns and any shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles the crew carries with them. Losses in the patrol boat force could leave the Black Sea Fleet’s landing craft and other support vessels without adequate protection.
In March, a Ukrainian missile team in Mariupol—a historic port on the Sea of Azov that today is under Russian control—damaged, if not sank, one of the Raptors. But the losses really piled up a month later.
Ukrainian navy TB-2 drones starting in late April blasted four of the Russian boats as part of Kyiv’s ongoing aerial campaign targeting Russian forces on strategic Snake Island, 80 miles south of Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic port on the western Black Sea.
Snake Island anchors Russia’s blockade of Odesa—a blockade that prevents Ukraine from exporting grain and other goods. Kyiv is desperate to lift the blockade. That means reducing both the Black Sea Fleet and the garrison on the island.
The Ukrainians are making some progress.
The depletion of the Raptor flotilla, combined with the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet cruiser Moskva by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles on April 14, has reduced by half the fleet’s front-line firepower. Moskva was the fleet’s main long-range air-defender.
A pair of missile frigates—as well as fighter jets flying from Crimea—have taken up the slack from the sunken Moskva. But the frigates are keeping 80 miles from the coast in order to avoid the Neptunes. There’s no easy substitute for the Raptors, however, as the Black Sea Fleet struggles to maintain the garrison on Snake Island with regular supply runs.
For the Ukrainians, it’s an opening. The auxiliary vessels making the 150-mile run from Sevastopol to Snake Island are vulnerable to drones, manned warplanes and anti-ship missiles. TB-2s in mid-May sank one Russian landing craft at the pier on the island.
Inducting a few Gyurzas could help the Russians to harden the maritime supply line. But a new threat is looming. Denmark recently pledged to supply to Ukraine one of its old truck-mounted launchers for Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The Harpoon travels farther than the Neptune does—potentially a hundred miles or more, depending on the model. A gunboat offers some protection against a drone firing a short-range missile with a warhead weighing just a few pounds. It’s useless against a sea-skimming Harpoon with a 500-pound warhead.