World·Analysis

Whatever sank Russia's flagship in the Black Sea, Ukraine is celebrating the victory

The Moskva was the pride of Russia's Black Sea fleet and a key strategic asset for President Vladimir Putin as he pursues his war against Ukraine. Now, it's at the bottom of the sea and Ukraine is taking the credit for putting it there.

By incompetence or Ukrainian attack, the loss of its flagship in the Black Sea is a major blow to Russia

The Russian navy's guided missile cruiser Moskva sails back into a harbour after tracking NATO warships in the Black Sea, in the port of Sevastopol, Crimea, on Nov. 16, 2021. (Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters)

Even though Russia's official line is that the Moskva went to the bottom of the Black Sea after an accidental fire on board, the sinking of the warship has left Kremlin propaganda outlets screaming for revenge against Ukraine and Russia's military leadership vowing to intensify missile attacks against Ukrainian cities

Early Friday morning, Russia fired cruise missiles at a Ukrainian factory in Kyiv that produced armaments, according to its Ministry of Defence.

Other parts of southern Ukraine were also struck overnight by Russian cruise missiles.

Ukrainian commanders claim they sank the cruiser Moskva, the pride of the Russian Black Sea fleet, by firing two Neptune antiship missiles at it.   

The Neptune is designed and made in Ukraine but it is not known if the factory hit Friday morning is where the missiles were being produced.

Russia's coat of arms, the double-headed eagle, is seen on covers of the missile cruiser Moskva in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Sept. 16, 2008. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

The Russian narrative is that a fire started on board the Moskva — accidentally — and that the ship sank as it was being towed to the Russian-controlled port in Sevastopol, Crimea.

So far, there's no video or satellite imagery or survivor accounts to support either side's story.

Either way, Ukraine's leadership is claiming a major victory.

"It's a hugely important military event and the biggest defeat of the Russian navy since World War II," Ukraine's presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych wrote on social media.

WATCH | Ukraine claims missile attack on key Russian warship in blow for Moscow:

Ukraine claims missile attack on key Russian warship in blow for Moscow

1 month ago
Duration 2:22
Russia’s flagship in its Black Sea fleet — the Moskva — was destroyed by two Ukrainian missiles, Ukraine’s military claims. The damage deals a major blow to Russia’s navy, reducing its ability to launch an amphibious assault.

"Ammunition detonated on board that cruiser — which emphasises that [it] had been loaded with ammunition to keep destroying Ukrainian [cities], " said Natalia Humeniuk, a media spokeswoman for Ukraine's southern military district.

The Moskva was not only the largest and most powerful ship in the Black Sea, but it also served as Russia's command headquarters for all its naval operations in the region.   

As many as 500 sailors would usually have been aboard and it's unclear how many survived the incident. 

"We saw other ships trying to help the cruiser," said Humeniuk, "but there was a storm in the sea and it didn't allow them to carry out the rescue operation." 

A man holds postal stamps showing a Ukrainian service member and the Russian warship Moskva, at the headquarters of Ukrainian post in Kyiv on Thursday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

A member of Ukraine's Internal Affairs Ministry was quoted by the publication Gazeta Friday as saying only 58 people were plucked from the water, with the ship's captain among the victims.   

The Moskva had been performing a number of roles off the Ukrainian coast, notably using its extensive anti-aircraft systems to protect Russian troops onshore, as well as other ships in the vicinity.

It had also shelled targets near the city of Odesa and would have been a key part of any potential invasion of the city. 

Without the vessel, Russia's naval capabilities have been decisively weakened, say experts.

"What [Russia] can't do as easily now is bombard the Ukrainian coastline with gunfire, conduct a blockade or threaten an amphibious assault in the way that they have previously," said Sidarth Kaushal,  a naval warfare expert at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank.

If it was a Neptune missile — or two such missiles as the Ukrainians claim — that took out the Moskva, it would represent a remarkable success for Ukraine's military planners, given how heavily defended the cruiser would have been by its anti-missile systems and radar.

A destroyed Russian armoured personnel carrier is seen in the village of Husarivka, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Kaushal said open-sourced information shows that the cruiser followed a "predictable" pattern of movement relatively close to the Ukrainian shoreline in the days before it sank, meaning Ukraine might have been able to use a drone to visually pinpoint its location and target the missiles, even though the weather at the time was poor.

"What is perhaps most interesting is that the Ukrainians were able to track the Moskva in order to keep their missiles accurate — which speaks very well of their intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities," he told CBC News in an interview.

The Neptune, while modelled on an earlier Soviet-era anti-ship missile, was brand new and had only just gone into service.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the country's oil and gas industry with representatives of Russian energy companies and officials via a video link at a residence outside Moscow on Thursday. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters)

Ukraine would have had very few such missiles available to it, and given the difficulty of targeting the Moskva because of its strong defences, also very few opportunities to fire them.

"It's likely that the missile they used — or the battery they used — was originally meant for training purposes and it was sort of repurposed for active combat at the last moment," said Kaushal.

Kaushal said another theory is that the Russian ship may have hit a mine, but again, there is very little independent evidence to go on.

For Ukraine's military, there could hardly have been a bigger symbolic target.

In the opening days of the war, the Moskva became seared into the collective Ukrainian consciousness when its captain confronted a group of Ukrainian soldiers on a tiny island off the coast Odesa and ordered them to surrender.

The soldiers' response: "Russian warship go f--k yourself," became a slogan that has been emblazoned on Ukrainian buildings, on military uniforms and just this week, also on a Ukrainian postage stamp.

The side of a building in Lviv, Ukraine, is painted with a rude slogan directed toward a Russian warship. (Chris Brown/CBC)

Russia disputes that version of events and claims the soldiers simply gave themselves up. 

But while Russian military operations in Ukraine's southern region may suffer without the ship, it's unlikely to impact Russia's broader war aims or strategy, said Maksym Palamarchuk, an analyst with Ukraine's National Institute for Strategic Studies.

"It will be only a [small] change in their great strategy," he told CBC News in an interview in Kyiv.   

Russian forces are currently massing in the eastern Donbas preparing for what appears to be a major new offensive to seize territory in the region.

Palamarchuk said Russian forces will have to compensate for the loss of anti-craft coverage in the region around Kherson, but he doesn't expect that will significantly impact the timing of the offensive.

President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 25, calling it a "special military operation," and banned all reference to the conflict as a "war."

In the hours after news broke Thursday that the ship had been severely damaged, Russian state TV shows appeared to be conflicted about how to refer to the loss. 

Some pundits on the talk show 60 Minutes appeared to implicitly dismiss the idea that Russian incompetence could have led to the disaster and instead blamed Ukraine.

"The warship Moskva is an absolute cause for war," said Russian filmmaker Vladimir Borto, a panellist. 

Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine has already turned into what can easily be called World War Three, responded host Olga Skabeeva, who raised the question if perhaps Russia should now fully mobilize its society for the war effort, including conscripting more soldiers.

Palamarchuk, the Ukrainian naval analyst, said he believes Ukraine is risking little by making bold attacks such as the possible one on the Moskva as Russia's ability to escalate the war is limited.

"If we see the number of troops they already have involved, it's difficult to escalate more," he said. 

"The rhetoric is that they give the impression they are strong, that they are willing to fight more. But it's difficult to force people to fight who don't want to fight. [Whereas] Ukrainians have no other choice." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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