In the early morning of 24 March, a Russian tank landing ship unloading in the occupied port of Berdyansk in Ukraine was destroyed by explosions and fire. Here we look at the background, the loss of this vessel and its potential implications.
Prior to the Russian invasion, Berdyansk on Ukraine’s Sea of Azov coast was a significant port exporting grain, fertilizers, metals and oils. Just 50 miles from the now surrounded city of Mariupol, the port has been captured and is in use by the Russian navy for supplying the front lines. The brutal siege has been enforced by indiscriminate artillery fire on the city designed to terrorise the civilian population and weaken the resolve of the defenders. The extended overland supply lines of the Russian army have proved to be a major weakness in the war. Logistic support by sea is attractive due to the volume of goods that can be moved and the assumed invulnerability to attack compared with transport by road. About 10 Russian naval vessels have been assigned to conduct supply runs to Berdyansk from Russian-controlled ports in the region.
The information war
On 7th March Ukrainian sources claimed the first major success against the Russian Navy. It was widely reported they has sunk the large patrol boat (c1,500 tonnes) RFS Vasily Bykov by luring the vessel into a pre-prepared targeting area for a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Although theoretically possible, it would have been an unconventional approach and a considerable achievement as MLRS accuracy is limited.
The Ukrainian military may genuinely have believed the operation to be a success and many western media outlets willingly published the story. Bykov has since been comprehensively verified as unharmed and pictured in Sevastapol. The images of a burning ship assumed to be Bykov have been assessed as the Moldovan-flagged merchant vessel MV Millennial Spirit targeted by the Russian Navy on 25th Feb. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has subsequently applied some basic security measures and painted over its ship’s pennant numbers and nameplates to make identification more demanding.
On 21 March Russian state media aired the above TV report confidently showing the tank landing ship RFS Orsk unloading modern BTR-82A 8×8 wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APC). The video shows the ship with almost empty holds and the last vehicles being offloaded. When the explosion on an Alligator class vessel occurred on 24th March, because of this report it was widely assumed that the Orsk was the vessel destroyed. Orsk had sailed sometime before and the ship involved in the incident was in fact her sister ship, the RFS Saratov (see photo evidence below).
There were also spurious claims that the TV report and social media coverage provided the intelligence that prompted an attack on the port. The Ukrainian military does not need to rely on Russian or friendly media to plan its operations. There are plenty of human intelligence sources on the ground in the occupied regions, its own air assets and commercially available satellite imagery would also show activity in the port. Besides the obvious ways to gather information, Ukraine is likely being supplied with high-grade real-time intelligence by the US and NATO, derived from military satellites, airborne radar and communication intercepts.
The Orsk and Saratov are two of four very elderly Tapir-class landing ships (NATO reporting name – Alligator) commissioned in 1968 and still in service with the Russian Navy. They were mothballed after the collapse of the Soviet Union but reactivated, primarily for use in transporting supplies to support the Russian military offensives in Syria. They have a nominal capacity of 20 main battle tanks or 45 armoured vehicles plus around 400 troops. Shephard Defence Insight notes that the Ivan Gren class assault ships were supposed to replace the Alligator class, but the glacial pace of Russian warship construction means that only two of the newer ships are in service with two modified variants still under construction.
The Orsk is equipped with a single, ancient deck crane so a large floating crane had been brought alongside to unload the APCs. The Saratov had 3 deck cranes which can all be seen in the raised position prior to the incident, presumably in use for self-unloading of ammunition which can be broken down into lighter loads than armoured vehicles. When the explosions occurred, two Ropucha class landing ships were also alongside. RFS Novocherkassk was secured on Saratov’s port side and RFS Caesar Kunikov was ahead of her. Possibly stores were being transferred through Kunikov’s stern ramp into the hold of the Saratov using the open bow doors.
The Ropucha class are marginally less antique than the Alligators but are also Soviet-era ships built in the 1970-80s. Several landing ships have been observed poised off the shores of Odessa ready for a possible amphibious assault. The stoic defence mounted by the Ukrainians across their country would suggest a seaborne attack over beaches close to Odesa would be suicidal. The Russians have likely abandoned this idea and are now using their amphibious vessels in the Black Sea primarily as cargo ships in an attempt to relieve their chronic logistic problems.
The material available on social media initially shows smoke rising from the mid or forward hull. This becomes a significant fire burning in the forward hold of the ship followed by multiple detonations as explosives cook-off. Blasts from inside the hull can be witnessed at the waterline. The draughts through the open bow doors also likely made the fire worse. The Novocherkassk and Caesar Kunikov can be seen hastily putting to sea to escape the inferno. Neither appears to have sustained major damage but there is a small fire burning on the deck amidships of one of them. Credible sources say both Ropucha class ships survived, heading for Sevastapol but with 8 killed on Kunikov and 3 killed and 3 injured on the Novocherkassk. Losses on the Saratov and ashore are unknown and unsurprisingly Russia has made no official comment on this event.
Missile strike or something else?
The Ukrainian military has not released any information about the incident so there are a few possible explanations for the cause. Some have suggested the ship was hit by a Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) but these weapons are in short supply and only have an accuracy of just under 100 meters. A video showing the start of the incident does not show a large explosion that would be consistent with a large missile strike. Russian sources claimed an SRBM attack on the port was intercepted during the previous week.
Another more plausible explanation is a drone attack using a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV. The TB2 has been used successfully by Ukraine already against many Russian ground targets, firing smart laser-guided micro munitions. Alternatively, a small special forces team could have penetrated the occupied region and launched an anti-tank missile or used a small UAV to drop a weapon on the ship. This mission would appear very challenging, high risk unlikely to be carried out in daylight.
Perhaps the less dramatic, but highly plausible explanation is an ammunition handling accident. All the ingredients for such a mishap seem to have been present. Fires, explosions and accidents have been commonplace in the Russian military-industrial complex, long before the added pressures of their “special military operation”. An old and badly maintained ship, conscripts or poorly trained personnel lacking motivation combined with hurried improvisation due to an urgent need to get ammunition to the front line may all have contributed. The Russian forces seem to lack basic logistic enablers which are routinely employed by NATO and western armies such as pallets and TEU containers. These mundane standardised packaging and transporting systems make it faster and safer when handling stores. Notably, NATO forces also benefit from being armed with predominantly insensitive munitions which contain explosives that are designed to not to react in a fire or if subject to accidental shocks.
The loss of a single elderly tank landing ship won’t significantly impact the course of the war. It will at least hamper resupply efforts to the Russian forces in south eastern Ukraine. The wreck of the Saratov lies sunk alongside the jetty at Berdyansk and the port itself may be rendered at least partially unusable. In this case, an attack from a UAV is hard to verify but is another wake-up call for naval forces regarding the threat from small and difficult to detect drones that present a risk to vessels in port without sophisticated air defence protection.
Main image: RFS Saratov Transits the Bosphorus, December 2020. Photo: Yörük Işık