As of 20 July, by order of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, vessels sailing through the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be considered potential carriers of military cargo.
The grain agreement has been suspended and with it all the prerogatives of ship transit security. But also motivating Putin’s choices is the concern of a massive attack in Crimea.
The Russian hacker group RaHDit published a map of the routes of civilian ships from which unmanned boats could launch across the Crimean bridge. According to them, the unmanned boats could be launched from two oil tankers Beks Loyal and Khudayar Yusifzade. One of the ships drifted 100 kilometres from Novorossiysk a few days before the terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge. The second tanker was to the south. After a while, the tankers met at sea.
According to the hackers, at that time, unmanned boats were reloaded from one of the tankers to the other and another ship, which was at sea near the Crimean bridge, was used to control drones.
As of 2022, Russian military analyst Boris Rozhin asserted that the danger to Crimea came from the transport ships. In an article of 8 August 2022 he wrote: ‘The (most likely British) plan is to use a merchant ship with a Ukrainian crew, which is used as a carrier for attack weapons – an anti-ship or cruise missile launcher, possibly a container ship (the photos show examples from the Chinese and Iranian experience, there are similar plans in Israel for the Lora missile system)’.
In the same article, Rozhin states: ‘The idea of a possible operation is expressed in the following. A Ukrainian ship (possibly under the flag of a third country) leaving Odessa passes through the Bosporus, unloads as part of a grain deal, and then at one of the European ports (e.g. in Cyprus at Limassol from the British Air Force base at Akrotiri, where there is a large airport for the delivery of such cargo) loads a container or a missile launcher (boats with explosives or UAVs can be considered as an alternative) and a team of operators, most likely NATO officers . In addition, the ship returns to the Black Sea with a conditional cargo in Trabzon or Batumi, without being checked on the grain deal. During the voyage, having predicted a period of bad weather and operating at night, the ship makes a diversion to the Crimean bridge and launches missiles against the target designation of NATO reconnaissance aircraft operating regularly in the Black Sea and using possible options to ‘illuminate’ an object on the ground on the side of the GUR MOU officers. After the launches, the calculation is placed on a sea drone that leaves the launch site, and the ship returns to its destination, where the installation is removed from the ship and transported to one of the NATO bases in Georgia. The possibility of loading the installation/container in Turkey cannot be ruled out. It is unlikely that such an attack would cause critical damage to the bridge, but the emphasis here is on the media effect of hitting an important object by circumventing the air defence systems of the ongoing attacks from the direction of Zaporozhzhia’.
The scenario therefore becomes more complicated for the Russians if ships are sailing in the Black Sea and are not controlled, and given the 18-20 July attacks on Crimea perhaps Rozhin had a point. In any case, navigation has now been interdicted so the Ukrainians will have to use new methods to attack Crimea.