August 9, 2023 - 7:00am

A new arena of conflict is opening up in Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression. Attacks on Russian vessels by unmanned sea drones threaten to disrupt Moscow’s commercial operations in the Black Sea. Following Russia’s withdrawal from a UN-brokered grain deal, the attacks also risk causing irreparable damage to perceptions of Kyiv’s cause among non-Western powers. 

One attack, on Russian oil tanker Sig off Crimea, demonstrated Kyiv’s new resolve to strike commercial vessels. The Sig and its owner are under US sanctions for transporting fuel to Russian forces in Syria. Meanwhile, Ukraine warned that Russian ports on the Black Sea coast should be considered “war risk” areas, and underlined this threat with an attack on a naval base near the major port city Novorossiysk. An advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has now declared that “everything the Russians are moving back and forth on the Black Sea are valid military targets.” 

This may seem like a justified tit-for-tat move following Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal and its blockade on Ukrainian Black Sea exports. The Kremlin shows no compunction about destroying Ukraine’s economic infrastructure, so why should Kyiv hesitate to respond in kind?  

Firstly, Ukrainian strikes on commercial vessels and threats to Russian ports – especially following recent drone strikes on Russian cities for which there is now “tacit recognition” of responsibility from Kyiv – complicate the moral narrative around the war. They may be necessary but, by putting civilian lives at risk, such steps raise questions about the good versus evil narrative which has been the precondition for Western support to date.

Further, by highlighting Ukraine’s eagerness to bring the war “to the territory of Russia“, such attacks will entrench opposition to supplies of longer-range weapons that could be used to strike deep inside Russian territory, as Germany faces strong international pressure to send Taurus cruise missiles to Kyiv.

Then there is the problem of perceptions in non-Western countries. Novorossiysk is a key departure point for Russian oil shipments to Asia and Africa — which skyrocketed following the imposition of Western sanctions on Russian goods, with China, India, Singapore and Turkey all significantly ramping up imports from Russian Black Sea ports. Between 15-20% of Russian oil exports are transported through the Black Sea, and Novorossiysk accounts for 17% of the country’s total maritime trade. Exports of Russian oil to the EU from the port have collapsed, but Novorossiysk remains a hub for vital shipments of Kazakh crude to European refineries. 

Oil markets have so far remained stable, but further strikes on tankers “could pose meaningful risk to global supplies”, according to energy market analysts. Already, insurance for the foreign-owned tankers on which Russia depends for getting its oil to market is either “nonexistent” or prohibitively expensive in the Black Sea, potentially making such shipments no longer viable. 

This would achieve Kyiv’s goal of damaging the Russian economy — but Ukraine might pay its own price in the form of reduced support, especially among non-Western powers. The Brics country leaders and other Global South powerbrokers which discussed peace plans with Zelenskyy in Jeddah this weekend would not look kindly on Ukraine if its efforts to disrupt Russian Black Sea trade lead to economic pain for developing countries — something the Ukrainian leader will have to bear in mind going forward. 

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of