Francis Drake’s swashbuckling spirit lives on in Kyiv’s Black Sea battles

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The writer is the former president of the Jamestown Foundation and author of ‘Black Sea Battleground

At first glance, 37-year-old Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov may not seem to share much in common with Sir Francis Drake, the privateer and one of the most prominent figures in Britain’s historic tradition of maritime warfare. But the head of Ukrainian military intelligence is rapidly assuming a legendary status in western intelligence circles for his attacks on the Russian navy in the Black Sea.

Budanov — who started his military career in the special forces — is engaged in his own form of 21st-century privateering by terrorising Russian ships up and down the Crimean and Russian Black Sea coasts through his use of uncrewed surface vehicles, or USVs. Reminiscent of Drake’s raids along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Budanov’s reported role in directing USV strikes on the Russian Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol has repeatedly degraded Moscow’s ships and ports. In the past week, Kyiv launched an audacious missile strike on the Sevastopol headquarters in which it claims more than 30 Russian officers were killed, further weakening Moscow’s maritime presence in the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s use of these autonomous vessels is revolutionising naval warfare. While surface drones have been in existence in many major navies around the world for over a decade, they had never been used in combat until Budanov and his colleagues spotted their potential. British naval expert HI Sutton has said that before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, USVs were still “a technology without a war”. Now, it seems, their time has come. Since the start of the invasion, Kyiv has attacked 18 Russian ships. Moscow’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, was sunk in a strike by anti-ship missiles.

As a result, Kyiv, whose own navy was largely scuttled or destroyed in the early days of the war, has nevertheless managed to erode Russian dominance of the Black Sea. Just as Ukraine’s use of aerial drones has been hailed for revolutionising land warfare, the deployment of USVs has implications for marine battles everywhere. “Drones will definitely make the operations to liberate our territories easier. Drones have no fear. You don’t feel sorry for them,” Budanov said in a recent interview.

One leading naval expert at the Rand Corporation has even likened Ukraine’s use of sea drones to the equivalent of fire ships as a naval warfare innovation. (Drake, incidentally, used fire ships in his most famous 1588 victory against the Spanish Armada, chasing the Spanish navy into the English Channel to meet its fateful destruction.)

Since the start of the conflict last year, Ukraine’s USV fleet has disrupted shipments of supplies, grain and oil on the Black Sea coastline and occupied Crimea. In one instance, USVs were deployed across a swath of the Black Sea striking a Russian landing ship in the port of Novorossiysk more than 360 miles from Odesa, as well as oil storage facilities there in the strategic Russian harbour.

One of Ukraine’s most successful operations was a sea drone strike on the Kerch Strait bridge on July 17 that disabled the only road and rail connection between Crimea and Russia, temporarily halting one of Putin’s major supply lines to the peninsula. The strike, which was jointly co-ordinated by Ukraine’s SBU security service and its naval forces, represents a breakthrough in maritime capabilities. “We are working on a number of new interesting operations, including in the Black Sea waters. I promise you, it’ll be exciting, especially for our enemies,” said Vasyl Malyuk, head of the SBU, following the attack.

Certainly the Russian navy has a significant advantage over Ukraine in the Black Sea and remains the predominant naval power. However, Ukraine’s use of USVs is changing the environment just enough to force Moscow to modify its strategy and pull back its naval force to bases in Sevastopol to avoid attacks. This might be just enough to allow Ukraine resume its grain exports to the west.

In his biography Drake: England’s Greatest Seafarer, the British naval historian Ernle Bradford wrote that if Drake had been alive now, he might have made “a brilliant commander of flight naval forces, or a special service officer in charge of partisans operating in difficult territory”. Bradford imagined his Elizabethan privateer on the occupied islands of the Pacific, the mountains of Crete, the forests of Burma, or at the head of the commando raid on St Nazaire during the second world war. But perhaps he should have added Ukraine’s Black Sea coast as a more modern equivalent.

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