Ukraine says it hit Russian navy tugboat with two Harpoon missiles

Just days after the US committed to supplying Harpoon missile launchers to Ukraine, the Ukrainian navy managed the first Harpoon missile strike of the war.

 The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet 145th Rescue Ship Squad's Prut class rescue tug EPRON sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey  (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet 145th Rescue Ship Squad's Prut class rescue tug EPRON sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

Ukraine's navy said they struck the Russian navy's Vasiliy Bekh tugboat in the Black Sea with two Harpoon missiles on Friday, the first time Ukraine has said it hit a Russian vessel with the Western-supplied anti-ship missiles.

The Vasiliy Bekh was allegedly transporting ammunition, weapons and personnel for the Black Sea Fleet to Snake Island. Most notably, the vessel was allegedly carrying a TOR M2KM anti-air surface-to-air missile system.

Ukraine's Armed Forces Strategic Communications Directorate published a video purporting to show the strike from the air, but Reuters could not independently verify the footage.

The Ukrainian military says that the Vasiliy Bekh was built at the Astrakhan shipyards and joined the Black Sea Fleet in 2017. It would be the 14th vessel lost by the fleet since the war began.

Harpoon anti-ship missiles

The sinking of a ship with Harpoon anti-ship missiles for the first time in the war comes two days after the US announced that it would be supplying Ukraine with vehicle-mounted Harpoon launchers in the coming months. 

A US senior defense official said on Wednesday providing the launchers would "bolster Ukraine's coastal defense systems." 

While the US would provide the launchers, it said that other nations would be supplying the munitions. Denmark had already begun supplying Harpoons to Ukraine. 

"A Harpoon is intended for coastal defense," said one of the Pentagon officials on Wednesday. "I think we've seen the negative impacts that, you know, the Russian blockade of the Black Sea has had, and continued Ukrainian fears about Russia targeting Odesa and other critical ports around the Black Sea. So this is a capability that provides them significantly stronger deterrence."

While the US officials at the Wednesday briefing indicated there were no new concerns about an amphibious assault by Russian forces driving the push for the anti-ship missiles, "coastal defense is still at the top of their list of support that they require in urgent needs."

In addition to Harpoons, the UK has supplied Ukraine with Brimstone anti-ship missiles. Ukraine also has its own domestically produced Neptune missile, which saw successful use in the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet Flagship Moskva

"What's being brought is another class and generation of missile which will certainly add to Ukraine's ability to engage located targets," said RAND National Security Supply Chain Institute director Captain (ret.) Bradley Martin last week, explaining to The Jerusalem Post on general efforts to add to the Ukrainian anti-ship arsenal. "What the proliferation or the strengthening of Ukraine's ASCM capabilities does is it prevents Russia from getting close enough to the coast to provide fire support or to launch amphibious assaults or anything of that nature."

Martin explained that there were some measures that could be taken by surface vessels to avoid being hit by anti-ship missiles, such as varying movements, electronic emission control, using decoy signals, point defense systems, and electronic warfare systems to alter missile trajectories away from the ship. In general, in modern times surface ships are vulnerable to attack once located.

"I would say that they appear to have gravely underestimated the threat that did occur from land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, and they appear to have taken not taking any sort of effective measures to prevent such attacks which would indicate to me a certain level of underestimation of the threat and surprise at what occurred [with the Moskva]," Martin noted.

Russian warships and Snake Island

The Vasiliy Bekh is yet another sinking in relation to the famous Snake Island. Both the location and the act of sinking Russian vessels have become highly symbolic to Ukrainians. 

"A tug of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, successfully demilitarized by the [Ukrainian Navy]," mocked the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on Twitter. "The ship was transporting personnel, weapons and ammunition to the occupied Snake Island. Moskva never be alone..."

The Atlant-class guided missile cruise Moskva was one of two vessels involved in the seizing of Snake Island on February 25. 

The incident was made famous when a recording surface of Ukrainian border guards telling Russian naval forces, "Russian warship, f***k you...!" when told to surrender. The phrase has since become an icon of the Ukrainian struggle against Russian invasion and has been emblazoned on stamps and t-shirts

The sentiment took on an even greater meaning when Moskva was hit by two Neptune missiles on April 13. It sank in stormy weather as it was being towed by the Russian navy.

The sunken ship has become part of Ukrainian national mythos, the underwater wreckage being designated a cultural site. The phrase "Russian warship, f***k you...!" has been used in connection to the sinking of the Saratov, a Tapir-class landing vessel resupplying Russian forces fighting in the Mariupol region, showing the residual symbolism of the naval war. 

In early May, Ukraine claimed that they had sunk a Serna-class landing craft and two Raptor-class patrol boats in an attack on the occupied Snake Island using drone strikes. Russia claims that Ukraine had attempted to retake the island ahead of Russia's Victory Day on May 9, and had lost three Su-24 bombers, one Su-27 fighter jet, three armored amphibious assault boats, 10 helicopters and over 50 soldiers.

Martin assessed that Snake Island has little strategic importance, and it is military value is largely symbolic.

Since the sinking of the Moskva, Russian vessels have remained at a distance, but have continued to launch limited sea-to-shore cruise missile strikes, and have effectively engaged in a naval blockade against Ukraine. 

"What they have done is they have tried to complicate Ukraine's targeting by not being so close that they could be seen from shore, and by doing that Ukrainian batteries could no longer just shoot them like fish in a barrel," said Martin.

Reuters and Aaron Reich contributed to this report.