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Explained | Did Ukraine sink Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea fleet flagship?
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Ukrainian officials said their forces struck the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet with missiles. Moscow acknowledged a fire on board but not any attack. 

April 15, 2022 04:09 pm | Updated May 05, 2022 08:49 pm IST

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows cruiser Moskva in port Sevastopol in Crimea on April 7, 2022.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows cruiser Moskva in port Sevastopol in Crimea on April 7, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Russia’s guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the country’s Black Sea fleet, sank on April 14. The ship, which would normally have about 500 sailors aboard, was located in the Black Sea somewhere off the Ukrainian port of Odesa at the time of the explosion. 

Conflicting reports emerged about the incident. Russian Defence Ministry acknowledged that Moskva sunk in stormy seas following a major fire aboard the ship that caused an explosion. Ukraine, meanwhile, claimed that the fire broke out after its anti-ship missiles Neptune hit the vessel.  

What is Russian warship Moskva?

The Moskva, named after the Russian capital, entered service with the Soviet navy in the 1980s. It was called “Slava” or “Glory” at the time of its commissioning. 

Along with Marshal Ustinov and the Varyag, which serve with Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets, Slava was designed to counter U.S. aircraft carrier groups and to provide air defence to Soviet vessels operating in distant oceans. They were nicknamed “carrier killers”.

It could carry 16 long-range cruise missiles. It was designed to carry a crew of 476 with an additional 62 officers. The Slava served as the flagship of the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea. It carried both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, deck guns, torpedoes and mortars. It also had a helicopter deck. It carried nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

The Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet seen anchored in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. File Photo

The Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet seen anchored in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. File Photo | Photo Credit: AP

The ship underwent repairs from 1990 to 1999. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the warship was renamed Moskva (Moscow) in 1995.

The Moskva took part in a blockade of the Ukrainian navy in March 2014 as part of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In 2015, it was part of a military operation in Syria, providing air defence for Russian forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also held several meetings on board the ship with world leaders.

Watch | Did Ukraine sink Russia’s warship Moskva?

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Moskva was reportedly the ship that called on Ukrainian soldiers stationed on the island in the Black Sea to surrender in a standoff. In a widely circulated audio recording, a soldier was heard swearing at Russian soldiers.

About the missile that hit Moskva: The Neptune, an anti-ship missile based on an earlier Soviet design, was first announced by Ukraine in 2013. A Neptune missile can hit targets up to 280 kilometres away. The launchers are mounted on trucks stationed near the coast.

Moskva was likely within the range of the Neptune missile when a fire broke out.

What is Black Sea fleet?

Amid the ongoing war, activities of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea are crucial to supporting its land operations in Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is one of its main fleets with its base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The fleet, which was once a part of the Soviet Union, played a crucial role in Russian operations in Crimea and Syria. In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Maskov of the Black Sea fleet was leading the naval assault. 

What happened to the warship?

Russian version: The Russian Defence Ministry said Moskva sank in a storm after suffering heavy damage in a fire. It previously said the blaze set off some of the ammunition on board which forced the crew to evacuate. 

In a later statement, the Ministry said the Moskva sank while it was being towed to port in stormy weather. 

“While the cruiser Moskva was being towed to the destination port, the ship lost stability due to damage to the hull from the fire…in the stormy sea conditions, the ship sank,” the defence ministry was quoted as saying by news agencies.

Russia denied an attack by Ukraine on the ship.

Ukrainian version: Maksym Marchenko, the Governor of the Odesa region, said Ukraine struck Moskva with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.”

U.S. version: While calling the development “a big blow to Russia”, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan stated that America was not able to confirm Ukraine’s claims of striking the warship.

“They’ve [Russia] had to kind of choose between two stories: One story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they came under attack, and neither is a particularly good outcome for them,” Mr. Sullivan told the Economic Club of Washington.

What is the significance?

The alleged missile attack on the Russian warship has come amid Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol as its forces continue bombardment of Ukrainian cities on the Black Sea nearly 50 days after the country launched the invasion. 

For Russia, the Black Sea is crucial to supporting land operations in the South and East, where it is battling to seize full control of the port of Mariupol. And the news of the sinking of the flagship reduces Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. 

Military analysts say Ukraine’s claim that it hit the ship in a missile strike could go down in history as being one of the highest-profile naval attacks since 1941 when German dive bombers crippled the Soviet battleship, Marat, in Kronshtadt harbour.

Russian experts, however, say the development is unlikely to have a major impact on its ongoing “demilitarisation” of Ukraine.

“The ship is really very old. Actually, there have been plans to scrap it for five years now. It has more status value than real combat value, and in general, had nothing to do with the current operation. It will have no effect on the course of hostilities,” Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchikhin was quoted as saying by Reuters.

(With input from agencies)

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