There is mixed news coming from the front line, and we are hit with a blizzard of news stories over the Christmas period about the conflict in Ukraine from a variety of news sources. Each of the Ukrainian and Russian sides, predictably, are emphasising different stories. Overnight the Ukrainian Air Force, we are told, firing cruise missiles from an unidentified “tactical aircraft” (possibly an F-16), sank a Russian vessel called the Novocherkassk stationed at Feodosiia Roads (the area for vessels to remain floating at full draught when not in port). Feodosiia is a resort town on the southeastern Crimean coast, on the Black Sea not far from the strait of Kerch. It is a significant exercise of Ukrainian aircraft and ballistic missile technology to have been able to strike this vessel.
At the time of writing there are competing reports of the fate of the vessel, which is of a typical Russian riversea design. Vessels in this class are typically used exclusively for merchant shipping purposes, and that was the classification of the Novocherkassk in international merchant shipping records. Ukrainian government sources described the vessel as a “large landing ship”, by which I think they mean a vessel used to conduct seaborne troop landings on territory; but it doesn’t seem to me that this is what the vessel was at all. The Novocherkassk is a general cargo ship constructed in 1993 and without armaments, armour or troop carrying capacity. Here is a photograph of her:
Although a Ukrainian government press release says that the vessel has been “destroyed”, it is not clear whether that is true. She may just have been set on fire and there is no (public) evidence that she is listing. This would be an unusual place for a military naval vessel to be stationed - Feodosiia Roads is a stationing waypoint for Russian merchant vessels with hydrocarbon (so-called “wet”) cargoes on their way from Russian rivers through the Black Sea and the Strait of Bosphorus to the Mediterranean and the wider world. There is a lot of cargo transhipment and admixture in this region, which is effectively a legal no man’s land, in which the waters are controlled de facto by Russian authorities but nobody else in the world recognises this and hence vessels are free to do what they want.
This vessel may be used just as stationary storage for oil, which would explain the large fire observed. Her movements over the last months have been insignificant, suggesting that she is a storage vessel for transhipment. In that case, the better way of looking at this strike by the Ukrainian Air Force is as a means of disabling or degrading transhipment capacity for Russian hydrocarbons, diminishing Russian capacity to export oil so as to fund her war effort; also this may have been a test use of F-16’s and associated mounted cruise missiles, things the Ukrainian Armed Forces are still training to use. Moreover were this really a military vessel, one would have expected Russian air defence systems, that in general are very effective, to have engaged the incoming cruise missile(s). That this did not happen suggests that the Russians were taken by surprise that such a vessel might be struck at all.
The important lesson here is that government press releases should not be taken at face value, and mainstream newspapers, often regarded as internationally reliable, ought not to publish the contents of such press releases without making their own elementary enquiries. It was not a military vessel that was struck, and it took me (admittedly with substantial knowledge of international merchant shipping) about five minutes of elementary research to establish this. That is not to say that this was not a target worth attacking; I can see all sorts of reasons why disrupting the sanctions-busting hydrocarbons storage exercises in and around the Sea of Azov is a desirable war goal. However the simplistic headlines in much of the international media this morning are misleading.
In a Russian piece of propaganda, we are informed that the town of Marinka, about twenty kilometres west of the westernmost suburb of the city of Donetsk in Russian-occupied territory, has been occupied by the Russian Armed Forces after having been held by the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the past decade since the two parties first initiated conflict over the town in 2014 after the occupation of Donetsk by Russian-backed separatists. Marinka is the front line on the extremely dangerous N15 road from Zaporizhzhia (in free Ukraine) to Donetsk, and it represents one of the most vulnerable points for the Russians on the front line because it is so close to Donetsk and if Ukraine can maintain artillery positions in Marinka then she can shell Donetsk positions. However the city has been so heavily fought over that there is virtually nothing left of it; there are in fact no inhabitants and the assertion that Marinka has been taken by Russian forces, something denied by Ukraine, is rather meaningless because there is in fact nothing to take. Here is an image of contemporary Marinka, possibly the most devastated significant urban settlement in all Ukraine:
I suspect the reality of the situation is that there continues to be live fighting, probably in the form of hand to hand combat involving small arms fire and mortars, in the very limited remains of Marinka in which there has been fighting has been on and off for a decade and hence nothing has really changed.
We are also told that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have undertaken a brief military incursion over the border into Russia from Kharkiv oblast near the city of Belgorod. If this is true, it would be unsurprising as it has happened before. The border between Ukraine and Russia is very porous in this region, and the distance from the centre of Kharkiv to the centre of Belgorod is only 80 kilometres. Provided you know enough about the locations of the minefields to avoid them, arranging a brief incursion into Russian territory in this region is straightforward and by all accounts frequent, in order that the Ukrainians create a sense of Russian territorial vulnerability that forces the Russian Armed Forces to devote resources to what is otherwise an empty wasteland of tundra with very few people in it. In this way, the capacity of Russia to devote military resources to other more important regions of the front line is diminished.
Finally I want to direct the reader to an article by a journalist in the Kyiv Independent about the situation on the bridgehead on the east / south / left bank of the Dnieper River in the vicinity of Krynky which is about 20 kilometres west of Nova Kakhovka on the Russian-occupied east bank of the Dnieper. The article link, which does not hide behind a paywall, is here:
I can do no better than the valiant journalist who did her best to describe the dire circumstances for the soldiers involved in protecting that bridgehead, and I lament the mean-spirited observations of some of those commenting upon this lady’s heroic and stoic journalism in bringing genuine understanding of life on the front line of the conflict in Ukraine to the rest of the world.