In a single day, Russian jets and naval aviation reportedly destroyed six Ukrainian speed boats carrying special operations troops, killing over 50 soldiers, in what presumably looked like an attempt to take back the Snake (Zmeiny) Island, nearly a year after Russia vacated it in “goodwill.”
This confirms previous EurAsian Times analyses that the Russian withdrawal from the island was not a retreat but a step towards de-escalating the Black Sea situation. Moscow left the island unmanned but continued to defend it remotely with aircraft and missiles.
This comes after the August 21 attempt by another speed boat from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) that was carrying out reconnaissance near a Russian oil rig in the Black Sea.
A Russian Su-30SM and a MiG-29 aircraft ‘strafed’ the boats with their on-board guns. The Russian MoD (RuMoD) claimed the boats were destroyed and released a video from the Heads-Up Display (HUD) from the Su-30SM showing its 30-mm GSh-301 cannon firing at the speed boat.
Last year, Ukrainians launched three attempts to take Snake Island: on May 8, 2022, June 21, and finally on June 30, suffering heavy casualties in the first two. Following the last strike, Russia withdrew “in a gesture of goodwill.”
Three Strikes in a Single Day
On August 30, the RuMoD publicized three attempts by the AFU between late morning and early evening. The first update at 10:52 a.m. said the “Black Sea Fleet’s naval aviation aircraft destroyed four high-speed military boats with landing groups of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces servicemen with a total number of 50 people in the waters of the Black Sea.”
Ministry of Defense showed footage of the destruction by the Su-30SM fighter from the built-in 30-mm automatic gun GSh-301 of the American-made high-speed military boat Willard Sea Force with the landing group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine east of Zmeiny Island in the Black Sea. pic.twitter.com/uBt8qNl5yj
— Dr. Simon.A (@simon77721) August 22, 2023
At 2:37 p.m., it posted another press release: “East of Zmeiny Island, in the waters of the Black Sea, the crew of a Su-30 naval aviation aircraft destroyed an AFU high-speed military boat with its crew.”
The number of Ukrainians killed was not specified in this update. The last update was at 5:55 p.m., at the exact location (east of Zmeiny Island), a Su-24 aircraft destroyed another AFU boat with its crew.”
Both reports did not mention Ukrainian casualties, except for the make of the combat aircraft that strafed the Ukrainian boats.
Why Is Ukraine Obsessed With The Black Sea?
Ukrainian attempts to retake the island could be explained by the desire to overwhelm Russian navy resources in the Black Sea, which have successfully fended off attacks by unmanned Ukrainian kamikaze drone boats.
As was explained in the EurAsian Times analysis, successfully landing troops on Snake Island will trigger a Russian attempt to destroy them, which will most likely be successful, given the more significant and better coordinated Russian assets.
Ukrainians are aware of this fact but are possibly trying to see if the Russian Navy can simultaneously conduct two separate tactical operations – retake a small island and destroy swarms of kamikaze drone boats.
In other words, it cannot be ruled out that Ukrainians were planning a sea drone strike immediately after landing troops on the island, with the drone operators and the special operations troops coordinating their attacks.
EurAsian Times had previously analyzed how the objective behind the kamikaze sea drone strikes was primarily to continue harassing Russian warship and naval aviation crews – who had otherwise successfully repelled all strikes – until they slipped and scored a hit.
Planning sudden attacks at different timings without particular patterns keeps gunnery crews and those on watch constantly on alert, exponentially enhancing stress levels. This is hoped to translate into late detection of approaching sea drone boats and their eventual engagement.
Secondly, the initial strikes on Russian warships were also meant to study Russian response tactics and time and to carry out technical improvements in the sea drones themselves while improving their tactics.
This is also reflected in Ukraine introducing at least five different types of drone boats over time. However, some have been built with Western assistance and components, merely assembled within Ukraine.
While no warship has been sunk so far, the Ukrainians have made slow incremental gains in getting closer and closer to Russian vessels. Assuming Russia does not manage to identify the Ukrainian factory where the USVs are made and conduct a strike by sea-launched Kalibr or Onyx missiles or the air-launched Kh-101, there is no reason why Ukraine can’t manage at least one hit on a Black Sea Fleet vessel.
Ukraine Has Constraints
However, Ukraine, too, is constrained in continuously carrying out strikes and expending its drone inventory, given Russia’s devastation of its defense industrial base, consistent with its stated goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine.
The assembly and manufacturing units must have been set up with painstaking care and secrecy, so churning out drones monthly must not be easy. And even if the factories are intact, preserving the sea drone fleet for striking during opportune political and geopolitical moments must undoubtedly be a part of the Ukrainian calculus.
The resumption of the attacks on Snake Island with troops can be seen as a part of this Ukrainian experiment, if not an effort, to see how the Black Sea front could be made the most challenging for the Russians.
For instance, in the August 21 attempt, when the Su-30SM engaged what the RuMoD described as a US-made Willard Sea Force “high-speed military boat,” also saw the boat firing a Man-Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) at the attacking fighter.
That the fighter wasn’t shot down suggests that the pilot must be aware that flying too low for the strafing would bring him in range of the MANPAD, possibly forcing him to fire his cannon from an altitude, making the attack much more difficult. The dual threat of an unsecured island and constantly threatened warships complicates things for Russian naval commanders.