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Rescue tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, shown in July 23, 2021. The Ukrainian navy said it sunk the vessel while it was carrying a surface-to-air missile launcher to Snake Island.

Rescue tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, shown in July 23, 2021. The Ukrainian navy said it sunk the vessel while it was carrying a surface-to-air missile launcher to Snake Island. (Andrey Brichevsky)

A Russian military tugboat carrying a surface-to-air missile launcher to Snake Island in the Black Sea sank after two Ukrainian missiles struck it, Kyiv announced Friday.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet tugboat Spasatel Vasily Bekh was part of an effort in recent weeks to resupply the contested, strategic island about 70 miles south of Odesa with personnel, weapons and ammunition, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a separate Friday morning tweet.

Open source intelligence analysts said the sinking would be significant because of the boat’s value in resupplying Snake Island.

H.I. Sutton, a military open source intelligence analyst, said the pedestrian label of tugboats belied their importance as valid military targets.

“In many respects they are a higher value target than the warships,” Sutton said Friday on his Twitter account, @CovertShores.

It wasn’t clear when the reported sinking of the Vasily Bekh happened, but the Ukrainian navy tweeted about it Friday morning. The Russian government hadn’t commented on the reports as of Friday afternoon.

If the loss of the tugboat is confirmed, it would raise the reported total of Russian vessels sunk or damaged by Ukraine in the war to 14.

About nine of those vessels, including four landing ships, three patrol boats and the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, have been sunk or damaged by Ukrainian missiles or drone attacks since March 21.

Analysts have characterized those operations as purposeful strikes aimed at breaking Russia’s Black Sea blockade, which has crippled the Ukrainian economy.

Russia has occupied Snake Island since the early days of the war, which began Feb. 24. The Russian takeover followed Ukrainian border guards’ defiance of surrender demands with an expletive-laden response that has since become legendary, evoking comparisons to other famous last stands.

Russia is eager to hold the tiny outcropping as a way of advancing its goals to control access to the northwestern Black Sea, protect Crimea and potentially undermine confidence in commercial shipping to and from Romania and Bulgaria, analysts have said.

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Alison Bath reports on the U.S. Navy, including U.S. 6th Fleet, in Europe and Africa. She has reported for a variety of publications in Montana, Nevada and Louisiana, and served as editor of newspapers in Louisiana, Oregon and Washington.
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