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KYIV — An overnight naval drone attack against a Russian tanker in the Black Sea signals a potential new front in the Ukraine war, with Kyiv delivering its strongest message to date that it is willing to target Moscow’s all-important shipments of oil and fuel.
The battle for supremacy in the Black Sea is ramping up fast, with massive implications for global energy and food security. The attack on the tanker off Crimea came only a day after another Ukrainian marine drone — a flat, arrowhead-shaped vessel packed with explosives — targeted a Russian naval base near the port of Novorossiysk, badly damaging a warship.
“The tanker was damaged in the Kerch Strait during an attack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported on Saturday. “The crew is safe, the Maritime Rescue Center informed us. The engine room was damaged. Two tugboats arrived at the scene of an emergency with a tanker in the Kerch Strait, the question of the towing vessel is being resolved,” it said.
Russia’s Federal Marine and River Transport Agency reported it was a SIG oil and chemical tanker — a ship whose owner, St. Petersburg-based company Transpetrochart, was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2019 for supplying jet fuel for Russian forces in Syria.
Tensions are rising in the Black Sea after Russia last month announced it was withdrawing from the U.N.-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative and started attacking Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea coast and on the Danube River with missiles, destroying tens of thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain.
After those attacks and the blockade, Ukrainian officials issued a statement in July that Russian vessels will be no longer safe in the Black Sea. Kyiv’s defense ministry said in a statement that such vessels “may be considered by Ukraine as carrying military cargo with all the corresponding risks” from midnight Friday.
On Saturday, Kyiv announced a “war risk area” around Russian ports on the Black Sea, specifically citing the ports of Novorossiysk, Anapa, Gelendzhik, Tuapse, Sochi and Taman. The declaration will be in effect from August 23 “until further notice,” it said.
Marine Traffic, an online maritime tracking site, has the latest position of the SIG tanker fixed near the Kerch Strait “at anchor.”
Russia’s Marine and River Transport Agency reported all 11 crew members on board were safe and that the tanker was struck in the engine room near the waterline on the starboard side, presumably as a result of an attack by a marine drone. By morning, the water pouring to the engine room has been staunched, and the vessel was afloat, Russian official said.
Ukraine almost never directly takes responsibility for these kinds of attacks. However, Vasyl Malyuk, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, has previously claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Crimean bridge and hinted that there will be more similar attacks soon.
“Anything that happens with the ships of the Russian Federation or the Crimean Bridge is an absolutely logical and effective step in relation to the enemy. Moreover, such special operations are conducted in the territorial waters of Ukraine and are completely legal,” Malyuk said in a statement on Saturday.
“So, if the Russians want that to stop, they should leave the territorial waters of Ukraine and our land. And the sooner they do it, the better it will be for them. Because we will one hundred percent defeat the enemy in this war.”
Waters near Russian-occupied Crimea and the Kerch Strait are Ukrainian territorial waters, according to international maritime law.
“Since 1991, Russia has systematically used the territorial waters of Ukraine to organize armed aggressions: against the Georgian people and against the people of Syria,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a social media post on Saturday.
“Today, they terrorize peaceful Ukrainian cities and destroy grain, condemning hundreds of millions to starvation. It’s time to say to the Russian killers, ‘It’s enough.’ There are no more safe waters or peaceful harbors for you in the Black and Azov Seas,” the ministry said.