The Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have thwarted the overnight attack on the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, but the fate of one of its warships was in doubt after videos shared on social media and a Ukrainian intelligence source suggested it had suffered damage.
The incident is the latest apparent effort by Ukraine to strike strategic targets inside Russia using drones, a growing campaign that comes as its counteroffensive struggles to make a breakthrough on the battlefield.
Naval drone attack
In a statement released early Friday, the Defense Ministry said the naval base in southern Russia was attacked by two unmanned sea drones overnight. The drones were destroyed by ships guarding the outer boundary of the base, it said.
It did not mention any damage or loss of life due to the incident, which it blamed on Ukraine’s armed forces.
There was no immediate public claim of responsibility by Kyiv, which usually refrains from taking credit for attacks on Russian soil. Moscow usually immediately blames Ukraine for any such incidents, without providing evidence.
But Ukrainian social media was abuzz with news of the attack.
Videos circulating online showed a ship resembling the Olenegorsky Gornyak warship listing and being towed back to the port that the Russian government said had been attacked.
Using satellite imagery and marine ship tracking data, NBC News was able to confirm that the video was filmed in Novorossiysk and showed the same class of warship as the Olenegorsky Gornyak.
A Ukrainian intelligence source said the Olenegorsky Gornyak was damaged in an operation carried out by Ukraine's security service, the SBU.
Around 100 Russian service members were on the vessel when it was attacked by a sea drone carrying 450 kilograms (about 1,000 pounds) of TNT, the source said, without providing information on any casualties.
NBC News could not independently verify the claims.
A video provided by the source also showed what appeared to be the front section of a sea drone approaching and striking a ship before the video cuts out.
Ukraine steps up drone strikes
The port city of Novorossiysk is located on the Black Sea in Russia’s Krasnodar region, in close vicinity to Russian-occupied Crimea.
The Defense Ministry website says the naval base there is part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It was established in 1994, it said, and before the war in Ukraine served as one of the key outposts for border protection and military transportation.
There were no reports of damage to ships in Russian state media hours after the attack, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment when asked about it during his daily call with reporters Friday, deferring all inquiries to the Defense Ministry.
A nearby oil terminal reported that its infrastructure was not damaged, and its operations were unaffected.
As Ukraine finds itself in the middle of a crucial counteroffensive to reclaim occupied land, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned last week that the war was gradually “returning to the territory of Russia — to its symbolic centers and military bases” in what he called an “inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.”
On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that three Ukrainian unmanned sea drones tried to attack two patrol ships in the southwestern Black Sea, but that the attempt was also thwarted.
Kyiv has been careful not to claim responsibility for attacks in Russia, but Ukrainian officials often send sarcastic signals in their aftermath.
Hours after the alleged drone attack Friday, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, shared a photo on Telegram of a Ukrainian soldier flying a drone with a caption: “Good Ukrainian morning to everyone. And let everything that you have planned fly.”
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also commented on Twitter. "What is happening in the Black Sea? #Drones are changing the rules of the game...,” he said.
If the damage to the ship is acknowledged by the Kremlin, the attack would be a major boon to Ukraine and another blow to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which famously lost its flagship, the Moskva, after a missile attack by Ukraine just months into the war.
The sinking of the Moskva was shrouded in secrecy, with the exact number of personnel lost remaining unclear.
The Kremlin said the ship went down because of a fire onboard, not because of an enemy strike, but it was seen as a significant setback and humiliation for Moscow’s forces at the time.