It was not quite in time for Christmas (which Ukraine now celebrates on December 25, after switching this year from the Russian Orthodox Gregorian calendar), but Kyiv will still be celebrating Tuesday’s apparently successful Storm Shadow missile attack on a landing ship in a Crimean port. There are no seasonal ceasefires on either side in this increasingly bitter conflict.
The Ropucha-class landing ship Novocherkassk (BDK-46) had already had a rather unhappy war. In March 2022, it was damaged by Ukrainian shelling when docked in Berdyansk in occupied southern Ukraine. Later in the year the Novocherkassk, along with its sister ship, the Tsezar Kunikov, were reportedly immobilized by a lack of spare parts thanks to sanctions.
The Feodosiya attack was calculated not only to damage specific military assets, but to ram home the message that nowhere on the peninsula is safe from Ukrainian action
On December 26, as it was anchored at the Crimean port of Feodosia, the Novocherkassk seems to have been hit by one of a number of British-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile fired from two Ukrainian Su-24 bombers (which the Russians claimed they subsequently shot down). Moscow has confirmed that the Novocherkassk was damaged, but Kyiv claims it was destroyed. Footage from Feodosia shows large explosions and fires.
On one level, it is legitimate to ask whether this is a big deal. It is not the first time Feodosia has been hit, nor is the loss of a landing ship militarily crucial — given that the days when Russia could plausibly mount amphibious operations against Ukrainian targets are long gone. These large vessels still have some role as transports — Kyiv claimed the Novocherkassk was carrying Iranian Shahed drones, although it is hard to see why, as it had not recently visited other ports and it would be a pretty illogical place for long-term storage. These ships are also relatively easy targets. Novocherkassk’s sister ship, the Minsk, was hit in a similar attack while at anchor off Sevastopol in September, for example. Still, this attack by Ukraine is noteworthy for three main reasons.
First of all, there had been suggestions that Ukraine had originally been supplied shorter-range Storm Shadows compliant with the Missile Technology Control Regime arms control regime, which limits the export of missiles with a range exceeding 190 miles. But this strike seems to confirm that Ukraine has the more capable version with a 340-mile range. Although it is not clear how many of these £2 million missiles Ukraine still has, they will continue to give Kyiv a powerful and long-range capability.
Secondly, the attack demonstrates that Kyiv is committed to a strategy of making occupying Crimea as untenable as possible for Russia. Even were Russian defensive lines to be breached or broken, a direct ground attack on the peninsula would be bloody and hard. Instead, the model is the liberation of Kherson in November 2022. After an assault there failed, the Ukrainians concentrated on isolating the city and hammering its supply lines, until Vladimir Putin’s generals were able to convince him that they had no choice but to withdraw.
Crimea is not Kherson, to be sure, and it would take a truly dire situation to drive Russia from it, not least because Putin likely considers the peninsula politically existential. Nonetheless, for the present at least, Kyiv’s best chance of regaining Crimea seems to be by making it too difficult and expensive to hold. The Feodosiya attack was calculated not only to damage specific military assets, but also to ram home the message that nowhere on the peninsula is safe from Ukrainian action.
After all, wars are political operations. These attacks are not only intended to unnerve the Kremlin, they are also meant to reassure both Ukraine and its western allies that they still have momentum. At a time when Moscow is claiming to have seized the disputed town of Maryinka; when Ukrainian defense minister Rustem Umerov is proposing lowering the combat mobilization age from twenty-seven to twenty-five; and when there is increasing pressure on Ukrainians abroad to heed the call-up (and Estonia may even be willing to deport draft-dodgers), there clearly is a need for some good news. Along with President Zelensky’s recent claims that three new Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers had been shot down (which has yet to be confirmed) the Novocherkassk also represents something of a bid to encourage Ukrainians, and reassure wobbling allies that the war is still worth waging.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.