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The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship cruiser Moskva, as seen in 2009. Ukraine says its forces struck the ship with missiles on April 13, 2022. Russia confirmed the crew had to evacuate the ship because of an a fire and resulting ammunition detonating.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship cruiser Moskva, as seen in 2009. Ukraine says its forces struck the ship with missiles on April 13, 2022. Russia confirmed the crew had to evacuate the ship because of an a fire and resulting ammunition detonating. (Russian Defense Ministry)

WASHINGTON — A Russian cruiser that Ukrainian forces claim they hit with two missiles has sunk, the Russian Defense Ministry reported Thursday.

Russian forces were towing the damaged flagship called Moskva in the Black Sea on Thursday during a storm when it went under water, according to a ministry message reported by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.

“During the towing of the Moskva cruiser to the designation port, the ship lost stability due to hull damage, sustained during the detonation of ammunition because of a fire," the ministry said, according to TASS.

The ship had been traveling east after the fire, likely to undergo repairs in Sevastopol on the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea, which Russia annexed during its last invasion of Ukraine in 2014, a senior U.S. defense official said Thursday.

Russia’s defense ministry has stopped short of attributing the incident to a Ukrainian attack and claims the fire’s cause “is yet to be ascertained,” according to TASS.

The U.S. official could not confirm Ukraine’s account that two of its Neptune missiles caused the fire but said it “very well could have been from an external source like a missile.”

“We're just not ready to say for sure what happened here,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “[The strike distance of] 60 miles is well within the Neptune's effective range. But it also could have been something else.”

Russia has not relied heavily on sea and amphibious assaults throughout the war, which began Feb. 24, senior U.S. defense officials have said. Still, the Moskva is the largest ship in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, according to TASS.

Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, a retired Navy admiral, said it “remains to be seen exactly what the major impact is going to be” to the Russian navy. The Moskva was about 600 feet long and had a crew of nearly 500 sailors, he said.

“It's basically designed for air defense … so it's going to have an impact on their capabilities, certainly in the near term,” Kirby told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon before the news of the Moskva’s sinking. “Whether it has an impact on their naval capabilities in the long term is just unclear right now.”

He could not say if the Moskva had launched missiles at Ukraine since the war’s start, but said the ship likely has offensive capabilities despite being designed for air defense.

“I would just tell you that we do know that some — not a lot — but some cruise missile attacks inside Ukraine have emanated from surface combatants in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” Kirby said.

The U.S. official did not know the extent of the damages to the ship or if any Russian sailors died in the fire. The Russian Defense Ministry said the Moskva’s crew evacuated to other Russian warships in the area, according to TASS.

The Moskva gained notoriety in the war’s early days when it was part of a Russian assault that threatened 13 Ukrainian border guards with certain death if they did not give up Snake Island, which is just south of western Ukraine in the Black Sea.

The Ukrainians famously told the crew members, “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.” The border guards were later taken captive and released in a prisoner exchange after first being thought dead, according to the Ukraine Defense Ministry.

The phrase has since become a battle cry on Ukrainian social media accounts. The defense ministry has since awarded a medal to the border guard who spoke the words, according to its official Twitter account.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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