As Russia and Ukraine battle in the Black Sea with warships, small boats and drones, a new strategic target has emerged in the contested waters: oil and gas platforms.
Both countries said late last month that their forces had clashed around a rig near Snake Island, in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Their accounts of the clash diverged and could not be independently verified. Russia said a fighter jet had destroyed a high-speed military boat carrying Ukrainian troops, while Ukraine claimed its forces had repelled the attack, damaging the plane with a missile.
It was unknown whether either side occupied the oil and gas platform. But the skirmish on Aug. 22 highlighted the military value of drilling platforms as Russia tries to impose a de facto blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and as Ukraine increasingly targets Russian-occupied Crimea, more than 100 miles east of Snake Island, with long-range strikes.
There are about 10 platforms in the northwestern part of the Black Sea, according to Andriy Klymenko, the Kyiv-based editor in chief of the Black Sea News publication. Several are mobile barges fitted with drilling equipment and long support legs that are lowered to the seafloor.
The platforms are owned by Chernomorneftegaz, a Crimea-based oil and gas company that Russia seized when Moscow illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. According to Mr. Klymenko, they have not been operational since June of last year, when Ukraine first attacked them.
No longer in use for drilling, the platforms have taken on strategic importance in the war “as forward deployment bases, helicopter landing sites, and to position long-range missile systems,” Britain’s defense ministry said in an intelligence update last week, noting the increased fighting around the rigs.
The platforms can also host surveillance and reconnaissance systems to gather intelligence on enemy movements, said Seth G. Jones, a military analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.
“They’re important for using them as islands for offensive and defensive operations,” Mr. Jones said. “That makes them valuable for both sides of this fight.”
Ukraine’s military intelligence service said the recent clash took place near several rigs east of Snake island that are known as the Boyko Towers. The intelligence service released a short video that appears to show combat boats near what The New York Times verified is an oil rig in the Black Sea.
Iulia-Sabina Joja, the head of the Black Sea Program at the Middle East Institute research group, said Moscow has tried using the platforms to protect Crimea and detect incoming attacks, while Ukraine tries to weaken these defenses. Crimea is a prime target for Kyiv because it is home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet and to logistical hubs supporting Moscow’s occupation of parts of southern Ukraine.
“Ukraine has all the interest to destroy military capabilities in that area,” Ms. Joja said.
Clashes around the platforms appear to be continuing. Rybar, an influential Russian military blogger, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that Russia had struck a high-speed Ukrainian military boat last Wednesday near the Odeske gas field, where the Boyko Towers are. The account has not been independently verified, and Ukraine has not commented on it.
Rybar said Russia should expect more Ukrainian attacks on the rigs because radar and communications equipment could be placed there.
Haley Willis contributed reporting.