Geopolitical Insights

ACADEMY SITREP – Ukraine Attacks Russian Tanker with Sea Drone

August 6, 2023
What has Happened:
  • On Saturday, a Russian tanker was hit by a Ukrainian sea drone in the Kerch Strait.
  • In addition, on Friday, Ukraine attacked a Russian naval ship with a sea drone in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
  • Kiev recently said that it had designated six Black Sea ports as being in "war risk" areas, indicating that there could be further attacks on Russian territory.
  • Ukraine’s goal in attacking the tanker was to increase insurance costs for Russia’s partners that are buying oil and shipping it out of those ports, which raises the true cost of buying “discounted” Russian oil and hurts Russia financially.
  • The number of attacks in the Black Sea by both Ukraine and Russia have increased since Moscow terminated the grain deal last month that had allowed Ukraine to continue to export grain to alleviate the global food crisis.
  • As Ukraine’s land-based counteroffensive seems to be making little progress, it appears that Kiev is looking to expand the conflict into the Black Sea and even into Moscow where Ukrainian drones attacked buildings last week.
  • The concern is that Putin could also expand the conflict as indicated by the news last week that Poland and Lithuania had warned against “provocations” by Wagner mercenary forces in Belarus.
  • As Ukraine tries to gain as much leverage as possible with its new strategy, Saudi Arabia hosted peace talks over the weekend and China said that it is in support of a third round of talks this fall.
  • Finally, in a display of force and collaboration, 11 Russian and Chinese ships sailed near Alaska earlier this week and while they never entered U.S. territorial waters, they were monitored by four U.S. destroyers and P-8 Poseidon aircraft.
Why it Matters:

“The Russian “soft blockade” (not formally declared, but unofficially enforced through intimidation) is a way to preserve flexibility of action without tripping a formal trigger resulting in war at sea. The Ukrainian’s expertise in autonomous explosive platforms (like the two that severely damaged the Kerch Bridge) is only getting greater. It is a new way for states without a navy to have a “naval effect”. As we saw with the Moskva, this can be very effective. The Russians have a bunch of clandestine ways to enforce a “non-blockade” through intimidation and sabotage. I doubt, however, that this can make much of a difference in the land campaign. Since the Russians have land-based supply lines, they can continue to operate effectively in a static defense. That might change if the Ukrainians were to interdict Russian land-based supply lines (e.g., by seizing Mariupol). In the meantime, Russia will continue their disinformation campaign in Africa (while blaming the Ukrainians for not shipping more grain). The power of narrative in the way that the Russians fight (and the way that they do everything else) is clearly emerging as a significant aspect of this war. Fortunately, the Ukrainian narrative has been even more globally effective.” General Michael Groen

“I assess Ukraine’s strategy with the drones targeting Moscow and at the ports as a reminder to the Russian military and Russian people that they are not off limits. However, nothing Ukraine will do with their drone fleet will likely mount to anything of consequence. The Ukrainians continue to lose many drones to Russian electronic warfare (EW) which remains problematic for the Ukrainians across their operational front. I don’t see this as a new front in the context that we would think of it in (combined arms), but rather a limited asymmetric threat for discreet (but not sustained) strikes. Given the number of Ukrainian losses (their best trained soldiers), the lack of air support, and the impact of extensive mining operations by the Russians, we’re seeing their counteroffensive slow and what we might consider combined arms maneuvering is being limited to the platoon/company level. They simply have not been trained to operate at the battalion and above level as a combined arms force. Moreover, Ukrainian troops are remaining deployed, and it is becoming problematic to rotate them out for any additional training. While they have demonstrated the ability to be very adaptive with technology, that’s just not going to carry the day in the counteroffensive. Russia wasn't invited to KSA for the peace talks. Russia will continue to escalate to keep the pressure on Ukraine in response to both the counteroffensive and strikes into Russia proper. I don’t see anything coming from the talks this year as Putin is watching U.S. politics closely. President Lukashenko of Belarus will posture and remain on the fence. I don’t see him making any more actual commitments than he has to date regarding military action into Ukraine. Even his demanding “thanks for keeping Wagner from invading Poland” speaks to his hyperbole and lack of any tangible actions.” General Robert Ashley

“Striking Russia’s export capability demonstrates “reach" that has not yet been demonstrated by Ukraine. It impacts China which used to receive a significant amount of their wheat, corn, & barley via Ukraine/Russia and “may” in time help increase external pressure on Russia to seek a "brokered victory”. It also further impacts African nations and the AU regarding grain/food shortages. Finally, it demonstrates to the EU & U.S. that Ukraine is still aggressive and willing to fight. The best that Ukraine can hope for is increased pressure on Russia by friends and "potential friends” (i.e., China, non-aligned African nations, etc.) to cease hostilities and declare victory. This only works for Russia if part of the brokered deal increases African Nations' willingness to align with Russia & China vs the EU and U.S. At the end of the day, continued international support for Ukraine is 100% dependent on the perception that there is value in the return.” General Mastin Robeson

“Ukraine’s recent aerial drone attacks on Moscow and this weekend’s seaborne drone attacks against a Russian warship and an oil tanker are Ukraine’s attempt to demonstrate that they have long-range attack capabilities like Russia does. The strikes are also intended to put fear into the Russian people who have thus far been isolated from the death and destruction endured by the Ukrainians. Unfortunately, Russia has an immense arsenal of long-range attack capabilities that have been used throughout the war while Ukraine’s capabilities are limited. That is because the U.S. has been reticent to provide these capabilities for fear that they will widen the war. Ukraine is left to improvise the development of long-range weapons on their own. Ukraine’s limited attacks will not present a significant challenge to Russia until the U.S. and NATO elect to provide Ukraine with additional capabilities. A fallout from the Ukrainian attacks could result in Russia increasing their militarization of the Black Sea causing uncertainty in shipping lanes and driving up oil and food prices even more to Russia’s benefit. Russia has already increased its own grain shipments after imposing a blockade on Ukraine’s grain shipments. The Chinese and Russian naval flotilla consisting of 11 warships operating off the coast of Alaska is a provocation not seen by the U.S. Northern Command since the Cold War. The flotilla is operating far from Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. The combined naval task force is unprecedented and is another indication of Xi’s and Putin’s “no limits partnership” aimed at sidelining the U.S. as the leader of the democratic world order. China and Russia are focused on a new world order. The U.S. is clearly in a new Cold War with two major global powers led by China’s economic and military growth. We have not seen a challenge like this since the Second World War.” General Robert Walsh