Another Ukraine (or US) shocker? Claims key Russian warship hit in the Black Sea; Update: "More and more likely"?

Did Ukraine score another surprising and dramatic naval victory in the Black Sea? Or did the US? According to multiple media reports, another key strategic platform for Russian operations in Ukraine has been hit by missiles and may be in the process of sinking. The loss of the massive Russian frigate Admiral Makarov would be almost as catastrophic as their earlier loss of the Moskva less than a month ago:

Russia’s Admiral Makarov warship has been hit by Ukrainian missiles and burst into flames, according to Ukrainian officials.

The frigate would be Russia’s latest naval loss in a troubled campaign, coming after reports that US intelligence helped Ukraine locate and sink the Russian warship Moskva weeks ago.

It was said to have been sailing close to Snake Island in the Black Sea south of Odesa.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Anton Gerashchenko reported on his Telegram page that Admiral Makarov was hit by a Ukrainian “Neptune” anti-ship missile. He cited Russian sources.

Thus far, Russia has denied reports of a strike on the Admiral Makarov, but Newsweek reports that rumors of a successful operation:

Speculation has been growing on Friday over the fate of the Admiral Makarov which Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko said on his Telegram account had been hit in a missile strike and burst into flames.

Russian forces sent helicopters to rescue the crew of the ship, according to Ukrainian news site Dumskaya. The vessel was said to have been sailing close to Snake Island in the Black Sea.

However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters “we do not have such information” about the reported strike, RIA Novosti reported.

Newsweek’s story has an embed of drone video showing a strike on two ships near Snake Island, dated on Monday, May 2. The Ukrainian government released the video today, apparently. This is a longer version, which also shows drone footage of strikes on Russian positions on Snake Island as well, or so the Ukrainians claim:

Another video on YouTube purports to show the Makarov sinking today. This one looks like it might be a little too close to shore to be accurate, as the Makarov had reportedly moved out of what they thought was the Ukrainians’ range:

Just a few hours earlier, Forbes’ David Axe pointed out that the “juiciest target in the Black Sea” for Ukraine might be the Admiral Makarov. From Axe’s keyboard to God’s flatscreen, apparently. Or that of US intelligence. Six of one, half-dozen of the other …

After the dramatic sinking of the missile-cruiser Moskva by a Ukrainian missile battery on April 14, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is down to just three major surface combatants. The best and most important of them might be the new missile-frigate Admiral Makarov.

And that makes the 409-foot Admiral Makarov perhaps the most valuable target for Ukrainian missile crews and drone operators. We don’t know exactly how of its best Neptune anti-ship missiles the Ukrainian navy has left or whether Kyiv’s TB-2 drones are hunting for the Russian frigate or her Black Sea sisters.

In any event, it’s apparent Russian fleet commanders appreciate the danger. There’s evidence Admiral Makarov’s skipper has been taking pains to keep her away from the Ukrainian coast.

Distance could help to protect Admiral Makarov. But that same distance precludes the frigate from actually doing her job, protecting the Black Sea Fleet’s other vessels from air- and missile-attack.

The Daily Mail reports that an American drone appears to be watching the events:

Unconfirmed reports suggest rescue vessels and aircraft have set off from Russia’s largest Black Sea port of Sevastopol towards the site, while flight tracking data shows an American drone circling nearby.

If the Makarov is confirmed as hit, it would be another hugely embarrassing blow for Russia after Ukraine managed to sink the Moskva – the flagship of Putin’s Black Sea fleet – last month, with the loss of hundreds of her crew. …

Around half an hour later, he posted an article from local news outlet Dumskaya which said: ‘According to preliminary information, the frigate was unable to dodge the Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missile.

‘The ship is badly damaged, but remains afloat. For now.’

If this is true, it would be an enormous blow for Putin and his military. Operationally, the Russian navy can’t replace either the Moskva or the Makarov, since Turkey is refusing access to the Black Sea for any military vessels but its own while the war continues. That means that the missile capabilities of Russia keep getting degraded, as well as its ability to eventually protect any amphibious landing — or rescue, for that matter, which may become important to Russian troops sooner than they think. Russia may need to retreat on the sea far enough to be effectively retired from the battle in order to save their other key ships, and that means Ukraine can seize the initiative on the coast and cut off any lines of retreat on the beaches.

It also deals a tremendous hit to Putin’s prestige. The Moskva sinking could have been a fluke, but losing two of its biggest and most expensive surface-fleet ships in a month against a presumably inferior foe like Ukraine shows that it’s not just bad luck. The rot in the Russian military apparently spreads across the board and all the way to the top.

Ukrainian morale will climb even higher, too, which means a tougher fight for Russians. Again, though, one has to wonder whether this is a Ukrainian win or a US proxy victory, now that the White House has started flapping its gums about intel support for these attacks. Each such success makes the chances of direct hostilities even greater, especially since Putin can now claim that NATO rather than the Ukrainians are beating him and sinking his ships. Maybe that will give Putin a pretext to withdraw or sue for peace, as Alexander Lukashenko urged yesterday, but Putin’s not going to do that without being able to hold up a win that justifies these losses. A slice of the coast and control of the Donbas likely won’t be enough.

Update: One open-source intel outfit thinks the claim is likely true, especially based on the response of other assets in the region:

Stay tuned. It took a day or two for better information on the Moskva. 

Update, 5/10: It looks like the drone strikes were on patrol boats, not the Makarov. Forbes picks up on a report from an open-source intel analyst that has spotted the Makarov intact, but now parked much closer to Crimea:

Sutton’s analysis of new commercial satellite imagery seems to confirm that last week’s rumors about a successful Ukrainian attack on Admiral Makarov were just that—rumors. The frigate survives.

But it’s worth noting where Sutton found Admiral Makarov on or before Monday: sailing near Sevastopol in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. In other words, close to home.

Indeed, Sutton narrowed the locations of most of the underway Black Sea Fleet to a swathe of ocean off the west coast of Crimea. Just two ships—a landing craft and one unidentified vessel—were near Snake Island, the current locus of naval combat between Ukraine and Russia.

Near to Crimea, Russian ships enjoy the protection of shore-based S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries and the Russian navy’s Su-30 fighter jets. Closer to Snake Island—which sits astride the main shipping route to Ukraine’s strategic port Odessa, 80 miles to the north—ships are at greater risk of coming under attack from Ukrainian TB-2 armed drones and whatever Neptune anti-ship missiles Ukraine has left.