The Russian Black Sea Fleet began the wider war with Ukraine in late February with maybe 11 landing craft. One 84-foot Serna-class vessel already is lying on the seafloor, having caught a missile fired by a Ukrainian navy TB-2 drone while hauling an air-defense vehicle to strategic Snake Island, 80 miles south of Odesa.
Now the remaining landing craft—including two or more Sernas as well as at least one 148-foot Dyugon and some 54-foot BK-16 assault boats—are running the 250-mile gauntlet between the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and Snake Island, which Russian forces seized on the first full day of fighting on Feb. 24.
And they’re doing it without much protection. The Ukrainian navy holed the Black Sea Fleet cruiser Moskva with a pair of Neptune anti-ship missiles on April 14, eventually sinking her and depriving the fleet of its only ship with long-range air-defenses. After Moskva sank along with potentially scores of her crew, fleet commanders pulled their two frigates farther from the Ukrainian coast.
Satellite-controlled TB-2s firing 10-mile-range MAM laser-guided missiles also struck four of the fleet’s eight Raptor-class patrol boats, whose main role lately has been to shepherd landing craft to Snake Island, which sits astride the sea lane to Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port. There aren’t many vessels left that can, or will, escort the landing craft.
Russian air force fighter jets, probably Su-30s flying from Crimea, are taking up some of the slack. “The Russians are also flying combat air patrols near Snake Island,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official told reporters on Tuesday. “That’s, I think, we think, an outgrowth of the attacks that the Ukrainians conducted there in the last few days.”
The Ukrainians have managed to slip TB-2s past the fighters. Overhead imagery from American satellite firm Maxar depicts what appears to be a TB-2 chasing after a wildly-maneuvering Serna just off Snake Island on Thursday, firing missiles at the hapless craft and its five crew.
It’s unclear whether the Serna and its crew survived their close encounter with Ukraine’s most fearsome drone. If they didn’t, the Black Sea Fleet might have just one Serna, the Dyugon and seven BK-16s left. And five fewer sailors to crew them.
Russia’s other fleets can’t just chop their own craft to the Black Sea Fleet to make good the latter’s losses. Turkey controls the only waterway into the Black Sea, and isn’t letting any warships through.
The danger from Ukrainian drones and missiles, and a looming shortage of landing craft, isn’t stopping the Black Sea Fleet from at least trying to reinforce Snake Island, which in recent weeks has been pummelled by TB-2s and Ukrainian air force Su-27 fighters.
As recently as Wednesday, landing craft might have delivered a fresh Tor air-defense system to Snake Island, partially replacing the defenses TB-2s knocked out the previous week.
But if every run to Snake Island risks one of the Black Sea Fleet’s increasingly precious landing craft and its crew, the time soon could come when the island—for all its strategic value—just isn’t worth it to Russia.