Death of the Russian ship Novocherkassk: what exploded on it

News has emerged from Russian authorities concerning a casualty, four wounded individuals, and damage to the sizable amphibious ship, Novocherkassk. The ship was docked at the port of Feodosia during an attack by the Ukrainian air force, employing Storm Shadow missiles. Ukraine alleges the total destruction of the ship. Video evidence suggests the ship caught fire before a significant explosion transpired onboard. 

Ukraine: Russian Novocherkassk ship carrying Shahed UAVs destroyed
Photo credit: Twitter

The Russian Ministry of Defense has yet to provide specifics about the damage. Nevertheless, videos and photographs seemingly taken during the assault, which have surfaced on social media, depict a sizable detonation. 

Determining the explosion’s location isn’t overly challenging – presuming all the footage was recorded in Feodosia, there’s only one extensive dock featuring marine cranes, located within the commercial port. Morning photos appearing on social media showcase buildings on the dock. 

Judging by the commentary, these images present the remnants of a ship once docked at the port. Determining the charred and severely damaged metal pieces that once formed the ship’s superstructure is difficult, with the ship type nearly impossible to confirm. 

However, as the Russian Ministry of Defense has admitted to the substantial damage if not destruction of the Novocherkassk LST in Feodosia, it’s highly plausible that the debris shown may indeed belong to the ship.

While many of the videos in circulation are tough to geolocate, large similarities in the depicted explosions across different clips suggest a single event – a massive explosion at Feodosia commercial port on the night of December 26, 2023. Markers such as port infrastructure and cranes visible across different shots affirm this observation.

Within a short span, satellite images of the ship, both pre and post-impact began surfacing online. These images captured on December 5th and 26th are instrumental in our understanding of the incident. 

Death of the Russian ship Novocherkassk: what exploded on it
Photo credit: Maxar Technologies

They clearly indicate the ship’s location at Feodosia port’s pier before the explosion, the sinking of the ship post the explosion, and visible signs of damage to the pier buildings. But it’s worth noting that despite the massive explosion, all the port cranes and the nearby lighting mast stood unaffected. 

The powerful explosion also had its proof in the form of video evidence and comments by eyewitnesses. Various social media posts also reported ship wreckage scattered across the city. 

Death of the Russian ship Novocherkassk: what exploded on it
Photo credit: Maxar Technologies

In one such video, Anastasia Kalugina, a correspondent for Vesti TV channel, talks about a substantial piece of metal wreckage, presumably from the ship, found in Feodosia. The clip, seemingly a live broadcast portion, also mentions damage to windows in nearby residences. 

However, it’s challenging to confirm whether the wreckage belonged to the Novocherkassk large landing ship. The video circulating on social media has clear signs of editing, and we couldn’t locate the original upload on the Vesti website. The video seems to be mostly shared via social media platforms. 

Another report from Vesti TV channel elaborates on the aftermath damage. Windows of houses in the vicinity of the port were shattered and the ceiling in secondary school number 10, located approximately 800 meters away from the explosion site, got damaged as per the Vesti correspondent’s information. 

The Storm Shadow missile carries a penetrating warhead weighing 450 kilograms, but the explosive component is lesser than the actual weight. It functions in two stages — the first part penetrates the target’s shell and the second part penetrates further before exploding inside. 

Video evidence suggests a high-intensity explosion. In one of the clips, viewers can see fire and smoke reaching a height 8-10 times that of the port cranes in the vicinity. 

The most likely explanation is that some cargo on the LST triggered the explosion. This is because the missile’s warhead isn’t that powerful and the ship already appeared to be on fire before the explosion. Noticeably, there was no sound signaling the arrival of a missile before the explosion.

What was in the hold?

The magnitude of the explosion implies that the ship might have been transporting explosive materials. There have been past instances where Russia leveraged large landing vessels to deliver military cargo. 

Social media speculations hint that the Landing Ship Tank [LST] may have been carrying ammunition or Shahed drones. These drones are known to be frequently used by Russia for launching attacks on Ukraine from Crimea’s territory. 

Further credence to the theory that the detonated cargo on Novocherkassk may have resulted in such a severe explosion comes from the fact that the ship was docked, potentially in the middle of unloading. 

Determining the precise nature of the cargo is challenging without close inspection of the debris scattered throughout the port and its surrounding areas. 

One theory suggests that the blast could have stemmed from the ship’s own ammunition, including 57-mm AK-725 anti-aircraft guns and a pair of Grad launchers on board. If onboard ammunition had erupted, particularly rockets for the Multiple Launch Rocket System [MLRS], the subsequent spread and resonating sounds of secondary detonation would have been evident. 

The same principle applies to other forms of ammunition – secondary explosions from shells or rockets in flammable warehouses typically follow the initial explosion and are clearly audible. 

Nevertheless, arriving at an accurate conclusion using the currently available data – comprising videos, photos, and social media narratives – is challenging.

Across all of Crimea

The Russian Defense Ministry reported an assault on Feodosia by two Su-24 aircraft, which were intercepted roughly 125 kilometers northeast of Nikolaev. There has been talk of Ukrainian Su-24s, redesigned to fire Storm Shadow/Scalp missiles, launching these attacks from the Black Sea. 

Claims of Storm Shadow missiles being defeated over the peninsula are routinely made by the Russian Defense Ministry and Crimean occupation authorities. However, in scenarios such as the attack on a ship repair yard or the incident where the Black Sea Fleet headquarters suffered major missile damage, the missiles traveled a relatively short distance, with both targets located in Sevastopol. 

The Feodosia port, where the Novocherkassk fell, and the Kerch naval factory, targeted by a missile strike on a warship in early November, sit at the peninsula’s farthest end from the standard Ukrainian missile launch route. To successfully hit targets in Feodosia or Kerch, the missiles would need to traverse over 200 kilometers across the Crimean Peninsula, which is generally well-shielded against aerial attacks. 

One plausible reason for the successful strikes by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on targets along Crimea’s eastern coast might be Russia’s absence of surveillance equipment, particularly airborne radar. Su-24s are fairly outdated aircraft, equipped for launching Western missiles solely because of their significant payload capacity and the presence of a two-member crew. 

Modern Russian fighters, superior to their Ukrainian counterparts, could take down such an aircraft before reaching the attack line. However, this would require an A-50 scout aircraft or another form of airborne radar, along with a squadron of interceptors, to maintain a perpetual presence in Crimean airspace. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine capitalizes on data from NATO reconnaissance aircraft that routinely patrol the Black Sea. This data presumably aids the Ukrainian Armed Forces in assessing Crimea’s air defense system and evading interception during missile launches.

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