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In fiery video, Ukraine says it destroyed Russian warship

A column of black smoke from a damaged Russian military ship is visible in a satellite image over the port of Berdyansk, Ukraine, on March 24. (Copernicus Sentinel)
4 min

Ukraine’s navy claimed Thursday that it had destroyed a Russian landing ship at Russian-occupied Berdyansk, as videos showed fires and columns of smoke appearing to rise from a ship docked at the city’s port.

The port, on the Sea of Azov southwest of besieged Mariupol, has been used by Russia to deliver military supplies in support of its month-long assault on Ukraine. With heavy casualties and equipment losses taking a toll on Russia’s advance, Moscow has described the port as a crucial entry point for reinforcements.

The damage to the ship was captured in social media videos verified by The Washington Post and satellite images. The flames were visible at long distances in clear skies, and the smoke was so dense that it appeared in images taken from space. Satellite imagery taken on Friday showed fire and black smoke in the vicinity of the now-partially submerged Russian Alligator-class landing ship and fuel storage tanks on the pier.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Biden administration, confirmed Friday the strike was carried out by Ukrainian forces, saying the number of casualties is unknown.

Ukraine claimed the triumph as Russia’s advance toward Kyiv remained stalled amid logistical difficulties, flagging morale and insufficient manpower. But the setback at Berdyansk is probably minimal for Russian logistical efforts, said H.I. Sutton, an independent defense analyst.

“It’s a highlight for Ukrainians, particularly in the naval sphere, but it’s probably not significant for Russia,” he said. “It’s a setback, but it doesn’t change the strategic picture at all.”

Given the smaller explosions coming from the ship in the videos, Sutton said, it was probably carrying ammunition and fewer soldiers due to limited space.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malyar, declined to disclose the ship’s contents but said it could carry up to 20 tanks, 45 armored personnel carriers and 400 paratroopers. She described it as “a huge target that was hit by the strength and means of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”

Moscow did not immediately comment on the incident.

The fires began shortly after 5 a.m., according to The Post’s analysis of the length and angle of the visible shadows.

The Ukrainian navy claimed on March 24 that it had destroyed a Russian landing ship docked at the port city of Berdynask. (Video: Social Media)

A security camera pointing toward the dock filmed black smoke drifting from the ship site. Seconds later, it captured what appeared to be a blast — a fireball that quickly disappeared. From another angle, sparks erupted from the deck. Several explosions followed until the entire ship was engulfed in flames.

Two other military ships pulled away from the port, at least one of them aflame.

The cause of the fires is not clear from the footage, said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He said landing ships can play a key role in sustaining assaults but noted that it was unclear whether much of the equipment remained on board or had been unloaded.

Still, losing such a vessel could be “a problem for them given the slow production rate of new ones and how old some of the existing ones are,” Lee said.

The Ukrainian navy initially incorrectly identified the destroyed ship on its Facebook page Thursday as the Orsk of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, sharing images of the alleged “occupier” ship in an undated photo before the explosion as well as visuals of the fires.

Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said in a follow-up Facebook post Friday that the Saratov landing ship was destroyed, not the Orsk.

“One of the Russian ships cannot be restored and also several other ships have been affected,” Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said in a briefing Thursday. He declined to disclose operational details, stating that the “tools” used on the ships were “not that important.”

“We can tell you for sure this operation has been a success,” he said.

The shape of the Orsk had appeared to match the outline of the ship that looked to be engulfed in flames in the video. State-owned Russian media outlets published a video of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Orsk Project 1171 offloading armored military vehicles on Monday at Berdyansk. Television network Zvezda claimed that the Orsk was the first Russian ship to enter the port and said it would help cut down on the delivery time of military equipment to troops.

The network called the ship’s landing “an epic event,” the BBC reported.

Mariya Manzhos and Sarah Cahlan contributed to this report.