Footage of a Russian landing ship on fire and subsequently being destroyed by Ukrainian forces had surfaced online, with two other vessels being damaged in the Ukrainian city of Berdyansk. The Ukrainians reportedly posted the video showing the ship exploding at around 7:00 local time.

The Russian landing ship was later identified as a Project 1171 Alligator class landing ship known as the Orsk, which was largely hailed by the Russians earlier this week as a good development for the so-called special military operation in Ukraine. In videos published by Russian news agencies, the ship was seen to be offloading some BTR-82A amphibious armored personnel carriers to replace staggering losses in vehicles suffered by the Russian army. The BTR-82A is operated by Russian naval infantry known to be fighting in Mariupol right now.

This move from the Russians gave their positions away to the Ukrainians, who then took advantage of the situation and reportedly sunk the vessel.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense then posted a photograph of the incident announcing that they had successfully destroyed the Orsk. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on Ukrainian television that they had hit a huge target on the port, which had been in Russian possession since February 27.

The two other vessels, Project 775 Ropucha-II class landing ships, were determined to be the Tsesar Kunikov and Novocherkassk. They had reportedly survived the Ukrainian attacks and were seen to be leaving the port, with one of them being on fire. The blaze was later put out, and they sailed off to safety. However, it is unsure which of the Ropucha vessels was on fire.

It is unknown how the Ukrainians managed to destroy the ship and set it ablaze. However, several open-source military analysts have hypothesized that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had used their SS-21 Scarab Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) or anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

The large Alligator class landing ship has been said to be able to carry 425 troops, 20 tanks, and 40 armored vehicles. The blaze, which was seen in the video as thick, black smoke, was reportedly caused by ammunition still loaded on the vessel. Russians had not finished unloading their military equipment yet, thus leaving the ammunition to burn with the fire. This prompted the ship to explode and had a rather prolonged blaze as the ammunition was also exploding due to the heat, otherwise known as a “cook-off.”

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While it is unknown what had caused the destruction, H I Sutton (@CovertShores) stated, “beyond any reasonable doubt that a #Russian Navy Alligator Class landing ship exploded in #Berdiansk, Ukraine.” He also claimed that a Ukrainian ballistic missile had caused the blaze. Other military analysts also concurred with him, stating that a Tochka-U SRBM was fired on the ships, but the Ukrainian Navy has yet to confirm this.

However, a Tochka-U hit would have detonated the ammunition immediately upon impact, whereas it was observed that separate explosions were happening as the fire continued. Furthermore, analysts pointed out that a Tochka SRBM had been highly unreliable as it was determined to have a circular error probability of 70 to 95  yards, according to naval historian Dr. Phil Weir. But at the same time, videos also surfaced that Tochka-U SRBMs were within range of the port as a news site uploaded a video of remains of the Tochka-U nearby. However, they were allegedly shot down.

Ukrainian OTR-21 Tochka TELs during the Independence Day parade in Kiev, Ukraine in 2008 (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
Ukrainian OTR-21 Tochka TELs during the Independence Day parade in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2008 (MichaelCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of the cause, the fact is that the Ukrainians have yet again claimed a victory over the Russians. With the Russian media giving their positions away, the Ukrainians were informed that they were unloading their armored vehicles and munitions in the port. This would mean that the ships would be easy prey. However, it also shows another Russian weakness in securing their perimeter as a highly inaccurate SRBM was able to hit them, leading to the hypothesis that it might have been fired at close range.

Furthermore, this presents another logistical challenge for Russia. They can no longer pass through the Turkish Straits as they are governed by the Montreux Convention which Turkey had earlier invoked and closed access. This means that they can no longer send reinforcements through the straits, and they can only enter if they are returning to their homeports. Additionally, the two Ropucha-II ships’ destination is unknown, but it could possibly head to Sevastopol as it is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

With food, fuel, and munition supplies reportedly running low, Generals getting killed left and right, and their troops needing to get “pushed by bayonets” to force them to fight, it is unknown whether Russia can still take the losses without critical resupplying. Furthermore, with the recent NATO meeting in Brussels revealing that the West is further supplying more military aid to Ukraine and providing more sanctions to Russia, Moscow’s physical and economic resilience would now be tested to its limits.

All that being said, there is reason for skepticism of Ukraine’s claims to have sunk the ship with a Tochka-U SRBM for the following reasons.

Video of the incident which shows the initial explosion does not show a vapor trail from the rocket motor or the glow of its rocket engine.  It is possible that the missile was in the terminal phase and its motor had shut off.

The missile has a stated range of some 74 miles which means the Ukrainians had to position the launcher within range of Russian counterbattery fire and air attack.

The Tochka-U SRBM is accurate to about 150 meters, it is not a precision-guided weapon yet made a precise hit on a vessel.

The missile hit the least valuable target at the pier, there were two larger ships tied up in front and behind the Orsk, why not shoot missiles at all three?

The two Ropucha-II class landing ships at the dock have missile defense systems that failed to engage the incoming missile at all.

When the alleged missile hit the Orsk, neither rendered assistance to the stricken vessel, instead they both cast off all their lines and got out of the port as fast as they could, one of which was visibly on fire as well.

The Orsk was said to be engaged with offloading vehicles, ammunition, supplies, and troops for the previous two days, which seems like a very long time. A similar US vessel would be unloaded in a matter of hours. Given the apparent state of the Russian military in Ukraine so far, it is entirely possible that a dropped pallet of ammunition or some other cause is the blame for the sinking of the Orsk.