A Russian Navy landing ship has likely been destroyed after an explosion and fire on board in the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, southeast Ukraine. The vessel in question was the Project 1171 Alligator class landing ship Orsk, while another two Project 775
Ropucha-II class landing ships, Tsesar Kunikov and Novocherkassk, were seen departing the port, at least one of them also on fire. There have been claims made that the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched an attack on the Orsk, potentially using one of their Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), but there’s so far no evidence to confirm exactly what led to the inferno on the vessel.
The incident seems to have begun at around 7:45 AM local time, when a significant explosion was noted aboard one of the vessels at Berdyansk, later identified as the Orsk. Soon after, the other two landing ships left the port. Differing reports suggest that either one or two of these vessels was also on fire, although it’s also been reported that these blazes were fairly quickly extinguished.
Ironically, the arrival of the landing ships in Berdyansk earlier this week had been heralded by Russia as a significant development in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the event had been covered extensively by Russian state media. At the time, a video appeared showing BTR-82A armored personnel carriers in the process of being unloaded from the Orsk.
However, it’s unclear what was aboard these vessels and to what degree they had been unloaded at the time of today’s incident. The Alligator class is able to transport up to 425 troops as well as 20 tanks or 40 armored vehicles, or other cargoes.
The size of the explosion and intensity of the fire aboard the Orsk was such that there have been some claims it was loaded with ammunition at the time. While there is no confirmation of this, the dramatic inferno does show some evidence of what looks like ammunition ‘cooking off’ — unfired weapon ammunition exploding prematurely due to the intense heat.
Unconfirmed reports also suggest there may have been eight sailors killed on the Tsesar Kunikov and three killed and three injured on the Novocherkassk.
Soon after the news of the incident, claims began to surface of a successful Tochka strike on Berdyansk, although the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense so far seems not to have presented this narrative, instead noting that “The large landing ship Orsk of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian occupiers was temporarily destroyed in the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told Ukrainian TV that the armed forces had hit a “huge target, capable of carrying 20 tanks, 45 armored vehicles, and 400 troops,” but did not disclose how this had been achieved.
If reports of an SRBM strike turn out to be true, this would be a major coup for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which are strictly limited in their ability to target Russian vessels when they’re at sea, with few if any operational anti-ship missiles. With that in mind, a collection of high-value landing ships in port would certainly have presented a very tempting target for the Ukrainians. The only other confirmed successful Ukrainian attack on a Russian ship is an incident that came to light earlier this week in which a Russian Navy Project 03160 Raptor class patrol boat was damaged with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) while underway near Mariupol. There remains the possibility that an ATGM team could have penetrated close enough to the port to take a shot against the warships there.
On the other hand, it’s questionable whether a Tochka SRBM would have the accuracy to target a particular ship unless the strike was simply a very lucky hit and the missile had been directed at the area of the port in general. The later Tochka-U version of the missile is assessed as having a circular error probable (CEP) of around 100 yards, although using an optional submunition warhead would mean that even a hit in the vicinity of the vessel could have led to its destruction.
Evidence in favor of a successful SRBM strike includes video from earlier this month showing the remains of a Tochka-U missile reportedly at the port in Berdyansk. At the time, Russian media reported that this particular missile had been brought down by its air defenses.
There are also unconfirmed reports, citing only anonymous “Odesa sources,” that a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 drone was also used in the supposed attack on the port, either as a strike asset or, more likely, to provide targeting coordinates
It’s conceivable, too, that, some other kind of Ukrainian action led to the incident, perhaps via some kind of sabotage operation, like the aforementioned ATGM team.
On the other hand, there remains a strong possibility that the explosion noted in the port was not the result of any kind of hostile activity, but instead the ammunition — or other volatile cargo — aboard the Orsk ‘cooking off’ after a fire had been started by other means, perhaps accidental. As The War Zone
has discussed in the past, naval vessels can be at their most vulnerable while in port. The process of unloading cargoes of weapons, for example, would only make that situation more hazardous.
The significance of the loss of the Orsk is compounded by the fact that Russia is now no longer able to bring additional warships into the Black Sea, and the adjacent Sea of Azov, after Turkey closed access via the Dardanelles as is its right under the Montreux Convention. This prohibits warships of all navies from entering these waters unless they are returning to their homeports in the Black Sea. As such, the incident greatly degrades Russia’s amphibious capabilities in the region.
What’s more, Russia has been more generally struggling with the logistical burden of its multi-pronged assault on Ukraine and the removal of another means of bringing supplies to support its troops is a major blow.
Footage of the Orsk being unloaded at Berdyansk earlier this week:
If this was indeed a planned Ukrainian attack, rather than an accident of some kind, it could also threaten to derail Russian plans to use Berdyansk — and perhaps by extension other captured Ukrainian ports. It’s unclear where the two Ropucha-II class landing ships are now headed, but their departure could signal a withdrawal to Sevastopol, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea. Overall, the inability to secure port facilities in Ukraine will only make the challenge of sustaining an occupation harder still.
Even if the incident was an accident, it remains to be seen what condition the port facilities have been left in, but that may also influence the degree to which the port can be used by Russia in the near term.
While the exact long-term results of whatever happened today at Berdyansk remain more uncertain, there are obviously many details of the incident that remain to be disclosed. In the meantime, Russia has almost certainly lost an important asset in its ongoing campaign and one that is impossible to simply replace.
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