Russian Black Sea Fleet's Flagship Goes Down off Odesa
[Update: In a background briefing Friday, U.S. defense officials shared their assessment that the Moskva was hit by two Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, causing it to sink.]
The Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed the loss of the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. At 12,500 tonnes displacement, she may be the largest purpose-built surface combatant sunk in action since the end of WWII, edging out the 12,200 tonne Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.
State-owned outlet RIA Novosti reported Wednesday that Moskva had caught fire, resulting in a magazine explosion and "serious damage." In its initial report, the outlet claimed that the vessel remained afloat, the crew had been "completely evacuated" to other ships, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.
In an update Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that the cruiser has gone down. "During the towing of the Moskva cruiser to the port of destination, due to damage to the hull received during the fire from the detonation of ammunition, the ship lost stability. In the conditions of stormy seas, the ship sank," the ministry said.
Ukrainian forces claim to have hit the Moskva with two domestically-produced Neptune anti-ship missiles, but no firm evidence has yet been released.
In a background briefing Thursday, Pentagon officials told reporters that they could confirm that the Moskva was heavily damaged, but could not say whether the damage was the result of a Ukrainian attack. They acknowledged that a Ukrainian missile strike was a possible cause, and confirmed that several other Russian warships appeared to have pulled further away from Ukraine's coast.
The loss of Moskva deprives the Black Sea Fleet of a valuable air-defense platform, as the cruiser carried three search radars and 64 S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Though somewhat dated, the S-300 is a potent system and its ground-launched variants have been used extensively by both sides in the conflict.
The sinking is also a significant symbolic victory for Ukraine. Moskva attacked the Ukrainian outpost on Snake Island at the outset of the war, and she received an unprintable radio response from the defenders when she called for their surrender; that phrase has become a slogan for the Ukrainian cause, and it has even been memorialized with an official postage stamp.
“Ships operate away from public attention and their activities are rarely the subject of news. But they are large floating pieces of national territory, and when you lose one, a flagship no less, the political and symbolic message – in addition to the military loss – stands out precisely because of it,” said historian Prof. Alessio Patalano of King’s College London, speaking to CNN.