Russia has withdrawn at least ten Black Sea Fleet vessels from Sevastopol port in the annexed territory of Crimea following a succession of Ukrainian missile strikes, according to satellite imagery and reports from US think tank the Institute of War.

The vessels, which include three attack submarines and two frigates, have been hastily relocated to Russia’s Novorossiysk port, 381km away on the Black Sea’s eastern coastline.

The Institute of War says the retreat offers greater protection to Russia’s fleet. Ukraine has targeted Russian vessels and buildings with a series of missile strikes in recent weeks, including in an aerial assault on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on 22 September.

Russia’s response has been severe. On 6 October a Russian airstrike killed at least 51 people in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, including a six-year-old boy.

Local officials say Moscow targeted residents from the village of Hroza who had gathered at a local cafe for a funeral. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of “genocidal aggression” on Telegram.

A Russian retreat or relocation?

UK Defence Minister James Heappey hailed the Black Sea Fleet’s withdrawal as a “functional defeat” for Russia at the Warsaw Security Forum in Poland on 3 October.

Heappey’s statement came a day before the UK Government declassified intelligence saying Russia could begin to target civilian ships with sea mines. Since then, a Turkish cargo ship sustained minor damage after colliding with a mine in the Black Sea on 5 October, said Ambrey, a UK-based maritime security company.

A Russian think tank, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, claimed on 3 October that the Black Sea Fleet’s movements were routine, however.

Be it a forced retreat or routine relocation, the situation represents a setback for the Kremlin in the so-called ‘Battle of the Black Sea’ which has intensified since Russia withdrew from the UN-brokered Black Sea grain deal on 17 July.

It is also a boost for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, during which Kyiv has vowed to retake control of the Crimean peninsula seized by Russia in 2014.

Russian President Vladmir Putin has since signed a deal for a permanent naval base on the Black Sea coastline of Abkhazia, a Moscow-backed separatist region in Georgia 350km south from Novorossiyik.

The Georgian Government publicly condemned the move as a “gross violation” of its sovereignty, Reuters reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the rumoured retreat or Abkhazia naval base, referring questions to Russia’s defence ministry.