Ukrainian Drone Boats Sink Another Russian Navy Landing Ship

Ukraine has claimed the destruction of another warship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Ropucha class landing ship Cesar Kunikov (also written as Tsezar Kunikov) being the latest victim of explosives-laden naval drones off the coast of Crimea. Ukrainian officials claim that the landing ship was sunk in the overnight attack and available imagery shows the vessel capsized.

A video released today by the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) shows elements of the attack on the Cesar Kunikov, with several uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) heading toward the vessel and a huge detonation, after which the superstructure is seen ablaze. The scale of the explosion might suggest that the ship was loaded with ammunition when attacked, although this cannot be confirmed.

At one point in the video, some of the warships’ crew are visible on deck and there appear to be splashes from small-arms fire near one of the boats as it gets very close to its target, but beyond that, it’s not obvious what efforts were made to engage the incoming drones. The GUR video ends with the ship lying on its side, its superstructure facing toward the relevant camera. Additional video posted to social media shows a large column of smoke rising from what was left of the ship.

Local reports describe that residents of Yalta, Alupka, and Miskhor in Crimea heard five explosions. This corresponds with a statement to The War Zone from Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of the GUR, who said that five USVs hit the landing ship. He added that the vessel was moving between Novorossiysk to Sevastopol when struck, and was carrying undisclosed “military cargo.”

The GUR says the operation was conducted by members of its special forces, specifically the Group 13 unit, “in cooperation with all components of the Security and Defense Forces of Ukraine.” The directorate also says that the attack was made possible by United24 — a government-run fundraising platform supporting Ukraine.

“The enemy ship was attacked by MAGURA V5 maritime strike drones off the coast of the temporarily occupied Crimea near the city of Alupka,” the GUR says. “As a result, the Cesar Kunikov received critical holes on the port side and began to sink. It is symbolic that the Russian officer after whom the ship was named was killed exactly 81 years ago.”

According to the GUR, the Caesar Kunikov — which has a standard displacement of around 3,800 tons and was built for the Soviet Union in Poland in 1986 — had been used by Russia during the wars in Georgia and Syria, before its use in the Ukraine conflict.

It’s unclear at this stage how many crew were on board at the time of the attack. The vessel has a typical crew complement of between 80 and 100. The GUR claims that the Russian search and rescue operation “was unsuccessful,” although this cannot be verified.

The Caesar Kunikov at the port of Sevastopol, Crimea, in May 2015. Vadim Indeikin/Wikimedia Commons

Local Russian media reports state that the search and rescue effort involved Russian Navy Ka-27 helicopters, as well as another ship and a submarine.

So far, the Russian Ministry of Defense has not commented on the incident, although it did claim that it had destroyed six drones in the Black Sea overnight.

The attack on the Cesar Kunikov is the second successful operation of its kind conducted by Ukraine in the Black Sea this month alone. On February 1, the Tarantul III class missile corvette Ivanovets was destroyed in another drone attack, which you can read about here.

On both occasions, Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus (MAGURA V5) drones are said to have been used by Group 13 operatives.

As we have previously reported, the Ukrainian-developed MAGURA V5 is 18 feet long, with a range of 450 nautical miles, a cruising speed of 22 knots, and a burst speed of 42 knots. It features waterjet propulsion and a streamlined hull. Its payload capacity of 705 pounds is significant. The manufacturer says it communicates via mesh radio with an air-based repeater and/or SATCOM.

Clearly, the Ukrainian effort directed against the Black Sea Fleet is proving highly successful, a reality recognized by Russian military bloggers.

“Time after time, the Black Sea Fleet turns out to be incompetent and unable to repel attacks from Ukrainian units,” wrote the popular Russian military blogger Rybar, in response to the attack on the Cesar Kunikov.

Ukraine is also using long-range missile attacks and aerial drones to counter the Black Sea Fleet and has claimed some impressive results, including sinking the flagship cruiser Moskva and inflicting major damage on a Kilo class submarine. Currently, however, drone boats are having an especially significant impact.

A CNN report on the Ukrainian USV program including footage showing the MAGURA V5:

With each USV costing in the region of tens to the low hundreds of thousands of dollars, these remotely controlled drone boats have a high rate of return when tasked against major naval vessels, even with unsuccessful operations factored in. They are also proving especially difficult for the Black Sea Fleet to counter using their existing defenses. The close-in weapon systems on some of the vessels that have been attacked appear to be less than effective against these novel threats.

As for this latest attack, the loss of another Ropucha class vessel — and potentially at least some of its crew — is a serious blow for Russia. These warships play an important logistics function between Crimea and mainland Russia and cannot be easily replaced. Even if available, they are effectively prohibited from entering the Black Sea from the Mediterranean under the terms of the Montreux Treaty, which you can read about here.

According to Ukrainian Navy spokesperson Dmytro Pletenchuk, the Black Sea Fleet now has only five Ropucha class ships remaining in service out of a previous total of 13 (additional units were transferred from the Baltic and Northern Fleets ahead of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine).

A BMD airborne amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle disembarks from the Cesar Kunikov. Russian Ministry of Defense

Previously, the Novocherkassk was destroyed in December 2023 and the Minsk was reportedly damaged beyond repair in September 2023. Also damaged and left requiring repairs was the Olenegorsky Gornyak, targeted in August 2023.

Interestingly, the Cesar Kunikov and the Novocherkassk had both come under a previous Ukrainian attack but managed to escape destruction. On March 24, 2022, they were reportedly damaged by artillery rockets that targeted the port of Berdyansk, Crimea, destroying the Tapir class landing ship Saratov (initially reported as Omsk).

Video footage of the March 24, 2022, attack on Berdyansk:

Looking at the bigger picture, the Ukrainian Armed Forces Center for Strategic Communications claimed that, by February 6, around a third of the entire Black Sea Fleet had been “disabled.”

“According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, our military disabled 24 Russian ships and one submarine,” it said in a post on Telegram.

Most remarkable, perhaps, is that this has been achieved by a country with no functional conventional navy to speak of.

This is a developing story. Stay with The War Zone for updates.

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Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.