At the end of August 2023, the Security Service of Ukraine launched a drone strike against the 126th Brigade of the Russian Black Sea Fleet stationed at the Sevastopol base in Crimea (Kyiv Independent, August 26). The attack hit ammunition depots and damaged critical Russian military equipment. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked “special military operation” (SVO) has forced Ukraine to adopt innovative tactics to blunt Russia’s military superiority, none more so than the expanded development and use naval drones. During their initial deployment on October 29, 2022, Ukrainian naval drones first attacked Russia’s Black Sea home port of Sevastopol (see EDM, November 8, 2022).
Maritime drone attacks have become a regular element of Ukraine’s overall naval strategy. On August 4, Ukrainian naval drones assaulted Russia’s Black Sea Novorossiisk naval and commercial port, unsettling Kazakhstan (Ukrinform, August 4). This particular port is the western terminus of the 939-mile (1,511-kilometer) Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) that Kazakhstan uses to export most of its Europe-bound oil.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the August 4 attack was repelled by the Russian Navy. The Olenegorskii Gorniak Ropucha–class landing ship and the Suvorovets Grachonok–class anti-saboteur guard boat took part in that defense. In a follow-on assault on the night of August 5, the Sig oil tanker was damaged, but the vessel remained afloat and the crew was not injured (RIA Novosti, August 5). Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova labeled this operation a “terrorist attack,” noting that it could have unleashed an environmental disaster (Gazeta.ru, August 5)
After the port’s operations were suspended, Astana began to consider options for their rapid reinstatement. Kazakhstan’s Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev announced his government’s intentions to discuss the port’s security with foreign oil importers and the Novorossiisk authorities to ensure the facility’s safe operation. The CPC currently transports more than 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports from the onshore Tengiz and Caspian Kashagan fields to Russia’s Novorossiisk-2 Marine Terminal (Nur.kz, August 8)
Satkaliyev told journalists that the order to consider Novorossiisk’s future security came from Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov. The energy minister also declared, “As for ensuring the safety of the port … Kazakhstan will take the initiative at the political level to ensure the stable operation of this port, based on the fact that the beneficiaries … of the oil terminal are significant global consumers, including those from the European Union” (Vedomosti, August 8).
Kazakhstan’s neutral position on the war in Ukraine complicates efforts to ensure Novorossiisk’s security. These difficulties are further compounded by the fact that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is currently bogged down in fulfilling its part of the SVO, Kazakhstan’s naval forces are deployed solely in the Caspian Sea, rendering them unable to provide assistance. The Novorossiisk assault represented Ukraine’s first strike against Russia’s energy infrastructure. Novorossiisk is not only Russia’s main Black Sea oil port, exporting about 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) but also Kazakhstan’s primary oil export terminus for the CPC’s 1.2 million bpd (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 4)
Kazakhstan is the second-largest shareholder in the CPC after Russia at 20.75 and 31 percent, respectively. Other CPC shareholders include Lukoil, Chevron and Rosneft-Shell Caspian Ventures (Kommersant, October 31, 2022). In an effort to limit overreliance on the CPC, Astana, even before the Novorossiisk assault, had begun to explore diversifying oil export shipments along the burgeoning Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or “Middle Corridor.” The option of multi-vector rail deliveries—for example, transiting through Russia to Finland—was also examined.
A month after the drone attacks, Kazakhstan’s national oil transport company KazTransOil held talks in Beijing with China Southern Petroleum Exploration and Development Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporation. These entities discussed increasing the throughput capacity of the eastward-flowing Kenkiyak-Atyrau and Kenkiyak-Kumkol oil pipelines, transiting oil for 1,375 miles (2,214 kilometers) from Kazakhstan’s Caspian town of Atyrau to the border town of Alashankou in China’s Xinjiang region (Kazakhstan Today, September 4).
Astana’s worries over the security of Novorossiisk could soon increase. The Ukrainian military has reportedly developed the Marichka underwater kamikaze drone. The Russian military press has circulated a video originally released on Ukrainian social media that appears to depict an unmanned underwater vehicle that is 3.3 (1 meter) feet wide and 20 feet (6 meters) long, with a range of about 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) (Vpk.name, August 24).
Putin’s SVO has become a loyalty test for the post-Soviet space. Belarus has consistently supported it, while many of the former Soviet republics maintain a discreetly neutral silence. This balancing act is primarily a consequence of these now-independent states’ ongoing relations with Russia. Kazakhstan’s western oil exports have become potential collateral damage in the protracted conflict. As the northern Black Sea increasingly becomes a war zone, this causes shipping insurance premiums to soar. Fortunately, given its multi-vector energy policies, Kazakhstan has the potential to divert its hydrocarbon exports away from the immediate conflict zone. Whether such shifts will be temporary or permanent remains to be seen.