Last week’s drone and missile strike that was carried out by Ukrainian forces on the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet facilities in Sevastopol resulted in significant damage to the drydock. In addition, a Minsk Ropucha-class large landing ship was also damaged, while the Rostov-on-Don, one of Moscow’s four improved Kilo-class submarines, was also hit by a missile and is unlikely to be returned to service, even as the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced the boat will be repaired.
Ukraine had carried out the attack with modified Soviet-era Su-24 (NATO reporting name Fencer) fighter-bombers to launch the British-supplied Storm Shadow missiles. A total of 10 missiles were employed in the attack, and while seven were intercepted, one struck the submarine and another two hit the landing ship.
It resulted in the worst day for the Russian Navy since the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva nearly a year and a half ago. Images have been shared online that show the extent of the damage after the Rostov-on-Don was struck by the missile, and it appeared the warhead penetrated the forward hull close to the front end of the pressure hull.
As naval expert H I Sutton wrote for Naval News this week, even as the Kremlin claimed that the Rostov-on-Don would be repaired, it would be expensive and time-consuming. It would also require moving the submarine to a suitable shipyard, such as the Admiralty yard in St. Petersburg. It is also unlikely Turkey would allow the boat to transit through its waters – so at the very best Rostov-on-Don will be left in a damaged state in Sevastopol for the foreseeable future.
It is hardly the only Russian warship that is lingering towards a slow death, or already lost in the fighting.
The Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva guided-missile cruiser was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles in April 2022, and it was last October that the flagship successor Admiral Makarov was struck by naval drones and damaged. This past August a pair of landing ships anchored in Novorossiysk – more than 200 miles east of Sevastopol – were hit by drones.
Oryx open-source data suggests that 16 Russian vessels have been hit since February 2022, 10 of which have been destroyed.
The Sorry State of the Russian Navy
Even before the start of the war, the Russian Navy had been in a steep decline for years, and it was in April that retired U.S. Navy Admiral James G. Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy, told Newsweek that the Kremlin had allowed its above-water fleet to “atrophy.”
It was quite the turn of events, given that it was in 2009 that then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev infamously stated, “Without a proper navy, Russia does not have a future as a state.” As it now stands, the future of the Russian Navy is in question, and perhaps so too is Russia given the quagmire it finds itself in with the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world’s oldest and the UK’s leading defense and security think tank, wrote last year that constraints on Russia’s shipbuilding industry, as well as its finances, will result in the Russian Navy’s surface fleet likely evolving at best into a green water fleet based around frigates and corvettes.
The Kremlin is simply going to be unable to replace its surface fleet’s large warships, and will become a littoral force built around those small combatants that operate close to Russian-held shores. Moscow may have a great and ambitious vision to construct a new generation of destroyers, yet, its shipbuilding industry is unlikely to deliver.
A Fleet of Antiquated Warships
Russia can’t build a new fleet, and it apparently can’t even refit its existing fleet either. The Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier has been undergoing a refit that has lasted years and is unlikely to return to service until late next year at the very earliest, and that is only if Russia can train a crew to operate the warship. It has now been out of service so long that there simply aren’t sailors in active service who have experience with carrier operations.
The aircraft cruiser has been undergoing a refit since 2018, and it was initially scheduled to be returned to duty by 2020. However, the warship has suffered what can only be described as an odyssey of unfortunate mishaps, and problems began almost as soon as the ship began its refit.
In November 2018, Admiral Kuznetsov was damaged when a 70-ton floating crane fell on the warship’s flight deck, killing one worker and injuring four more. Just over a year later, a fire broke out in the engine room during a welding accident, leaving two people dead, while 14 suffered injuries from fire and smoke inhalation. In addition, the actual drydock, which was vital to the repairs, was also damaged during a power outage, further delaying the refit.
Moreover, the carrier is just one of the Russian Navy’s warships that is undergoing such a lengthy refit. This spring it was also announced the nuclear-powered flagship of the Northern fleet, the Kirov-class nuclear-powered battlecruiser Peter the Great, will be scrapped because it is too expensive to modernize. Her sister vessel, Admiral Nakhimov, is on track to begin sea trials perhaps next year – but that vessel has been out of service since 1999!
After arguably the longest refit in naval history, it was in January of this year that the loading of fuel and work on the power supply had finally begun. During the modernization efforts, more than 5,000 pieces of equipment have been installed, while around 200 km (125 miles) of pipelines and 1,800 km (1,120 miles) of cables have been laid throughout the battlecruiser. Yet, naval experts have questioned her capabilities – as the warship is still going to be older than many of the sailors who serve on her.
Moscow would like to see Admiral Nakhimov’s return as marking the Russian Navy’s resurgence, but at this point even if the vessel does sail again the rest of the surface fleet is all but dead in the water.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.