“Russian warship, go f*** yourself!” is the phrase dating back to the first days of the Russia-Ukrainian war, that spawned countless memes and bumper stickers.
It is what Ukrainian servicemen stationed on the Zmiiny Island, or Snake Island, in the Black Sea replied to the Russian warship’s urge to surrender.
But by early 2022, the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in annexed Crimea, seemed to have gained absolute control over Ukraine’s territorial waters in the Black Sea and its smaller, shallower sibling, the Sea of Azov.
Its larger ships shelled Ukraine’s main seaport, Odesa, and other southern cities with missiles and drones, killing civilians and destroying apartment buildings, military installations and port infrastructure.
Smaller Russian navy vessels stopped and officiously inspected merchant ships carrying grain and sunflower oil, Ukraine’s key exports.
Russian navy felt at ease in all of the Black Sea’s northern part – but after almost 600 days of war, the tables have turned.
“They miscalculated,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces, told Al Jazeera. “We won’t let them rest and won’t rest ourselves until we fully de-occupy our lands.”
Fleeing Sevastopol naval base
Satellite imagery shows that at least a dozen Russian vessels, including guided missile frigates, landing ships and submarines, have been hastily relocated from their main base in Sevastopol, a subtropical port in annexed Crimea.
Most were moved to the Russian port of Novorossiisk more than 300km (186 miles) east of Sevastopol, or on other, smaller bases or bays in eastern Crimea or along Russia’s Black Sea coast.
British Defence Minister James Heappey compared the “functional defeat of the Black Sea Fleet” to the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast one year ago.
“The fleet has been forced to disperse to ports from which it cannot have an effect on Ukraine,” he said on Tuesday.
A series of daring raids
The relocation follows a series of daring Ukrainian attacks with Western-supplied cruise missiles and domestically assembled aerial and naval drones that destroyed flagships, smaller cutters and even a docked submarine.
They also annihilated two advanced S-400 air defence systems creating sizeable “holes” in the sky over Crimea.
And, most importantly, they damaged a major shipyard with a dry dock that was essential for repairing decades-old Russian ships.
“What was critical for Russia wasn’t damage to vessels, it was damage to the shipyard,” Kyiv-based analyst Ihar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera. “This is the reason why a large part of the Black Sea fleet vessels were relocated to Novorossiisk.”
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