Ukrainian naval drone hits Russian oil tanker near Crimea

A Ukrainian naval drone has struck a Russian oil tanker in the Kerch Strait near Crimea, in the latest in a series of bold strikes that signal Kyiv’s use of unmanned vehicles is becoming more aggressive and effective.

The attack on the vessel took place early on Saturday morning according to Russian reports and a Ukrainian official with knowledge of the operation. 

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the operation was carried out by the security service of Ukraine, or SBU, in conjunction with the country’s navy.

A video released by Ukrainian authorities which could not immediately be verified showed a naval drone striking the side of the tanker, which has been identified by Russian officials as the SIG. It was operating under the Russian flag and has 11 crew members.

Two tugboats were dispatched to aid the vessel, which had lost power due to damage to its engine room, Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported, citing the Marine Rescue Coordination Center in Novorossiysk. The agency said the crew suffered no serious injuries and no fuel had been released into the sea.

Photos of the interior of the SIG published by the Russian Telegram channel Baza showed damage to several of the ship’s compartments and debris strewn across the rooms.

Vladimir Rogov, who heads the occupation administration in the part of southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast which is under Russian control, wrote on Telegram that the explosion was visible to residents of Crimea.

He shared a recording of what he said was a distress call made by the ship’s crew to emergency services in which a man can be heard saying that “the engine room is completely flooded” and the vessel was unable to move.

Ukraine made no official statement claiming responsibility for the strike, in line with its wartime policy of rarely confirming or denying attacks inside Russia and in occupied Crimea. But in a tacit admission, SBU head Vasyl Malyuk said that any attacks “on the ships of the Russian Federation or the Crimean bridge is an absolutely logical and effective step in relation to the enemy”.

“Such special operations are conducted in the territorial waters of Ukraine and are completely legal,” he said. 

In recent days Ukraine has stepped up strikes on Russian territory and against Russian vessels and ports in the Black Sea using unmanned aerial and surface vehicles armed with explosives.

Analysts say the attacks are part of Ukraine’s effort to wear Moscow down and bring its war closer to home, while also disrupting its logistical capabilities. 

The attack on the SIG came a day after a Ukrainian sea drone struck Russia’s Olenegorsky Gornyak landing ship outside the port of Novorossiysk. Ukrainian officials said the SBU and Ukrainian navy were also behind that strike.

The Ukrainian attacks follow a series of Russian missile and drone strikes on ports in Odesa city and the wider region that targeted facilities used to export grain. They came in the wake of Moscow’s withdrawal from the UN-brokered deal which allowed cereals to be transported through the Black Sea despite the war.

The SIG has been under sanctions by the US since 2019 for supplying jet fuel to the forces fighting for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Rogov said the ship had recently returned from Syria, where it delivered oil products for Russia’s military. 

“Such an attack is intended not only to force Russia to return to the shameful grain deal, but also to partially jeopardise the logistical capabilities of Russia’s armed forces in the Middle East,” he said.

Malyuk warned that attacks on Russian vessels would continue as long as they posed a threat to his country. Russian ships should “leave the territorial waters of Ukraine and our land”, he said. “The sooner they do it, the better it will be for them.”

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