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The Russian cruiser Moskva.

The Russian cruiser Moskva. (Mil.ru/TNS)

LONDON (Tribune News Service) — The loss of the flagship vessel of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet goes beyond wounded pride, robbing the military of important protection and capabilities as the war in Ukraine enters a crucial phase for Moscow.

How the Moskva caught fire late on Wednesday remains disputed. Russia’s defense ministry said the warship’s ammunition store detonated. The governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region, Maksym Marchenko, backed up by the defense ministry, said it was struck by two Neptune missiles, a new Ukrainian anti-ship system of which just one battery exists.

Russian news agencies reported late Thursday, citing the defense ministry, that the ship sank in rough weather while being towed back to port.

The outcome is an embarrassment for Russia and a win for Ukraine. The ship gained notoriety at the start of the war for a confrontation with a small contingent of Ukrainian guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea who, in colorful terms, reportedly told the Moskva to get lost.

It will also cost Russia militarily. While old – it was commissioned in 1982 — the Slava (Glory) class Moskva was refitted in 2010. It provided a mobile bubble of long-range air defense for the rest of the fleet, as well as command and control systems. Those abilities cannot be easily substituted.

“It is the only class of ship the Russian navy currently has that fields a long-range air defense system,” said Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow for sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “That matters because for the sort of operation the Black Sea Fleet is designed to do, the Moskva has the capability to sit back and create an air defense for the rest of the fleet, and at the same time provide command and control.”

A western official described the Ukrainian claim of a missile strike on the Moskva as credible, and its loss as a significant blow.

Although the Moskva had two sister ships, neither is in the Black Sea. They cannot enter it, because under the rules of the 1936 Montreux convention, Turkey is limiting access through the Bosporus strait for Russian naval vessels.

Russia’s navy has played a relatively minor role in the war so far, used primarily as an additional source of cruise missile launchers to attack targets across Ukraine. The Moskva didn’t have those, but it did carry the anti-ship missiles that made it a spearhead for use against American carrier fleets during the Cold War.

“These ships would completely neutralize the American carrier fleet,” the Russian historian and opposition politician Andrei Zubov wrote on Thursday, in a Facebook post headed “The Inglorious End of the Glory.” He was recalling the words of his father, who oversaw construction of the Moskva among other major naval and civilian vessels.

Zubov said his late father, who was an admiral, saw the heavy cruiser as a deterrent that should never be used in anger. “Thank God, he did not see how the current Russian strategists used his pride,” he said. “It is a big military mistake in itself to use an anti-aircraft deterrent as a ship to provide fire support for an amphibious landing.”

That’s especially the case given the ship’s defense systems and analog radar were outdated. The Moskva had a crew of about 500, and Moscow says they were evacuated from the ship.

Although the Black Sea Fleet has set out as if to attack Odesa multiple times since the war began on Feb. 24, it has not followed through. That’s in large part, according to Kaushal, because with a capacity to land 3,000 troops, the amphibious force the fleet can deploy is too small to act without a larger land assault.

That land assault hasn’t yet come, because Russian forces have consistently been blocked at Mykolayiv, the gateway to Odesa and Ukraine’s largest Black Sea ports. Had they broken through, the Moskva could have thrown a protective bubble around an amphibious attack, much as it did during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.

A person close to Russia’s defense ministry said it would be very difficult with or without the Moskva to attack Odesa from the sea, and cast it as more of a symbolic loss. Still, Russia only had a small number of that class of vessel and lacked the shipbuilding capabilities of the Soviet era, the person said.

Mykolayiv helps explain why the Moskva is unlikely to be replaced for the medium term. Not only does the city have the only shipyard in the former Soviet Union with the capacity to build an aircraft carrier, it also hosts Zorya-Mashproekt, a producer of gas turbine engines for large ships such as the Moskva.

The loss of access to the shipyard and engine maker after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation in 2014 of nearby Crimea has complicated his efforts to modernize the navy and would make it harder to produce another Moskva today. A project to build destroyers of a similar size to the Slava class cruisers has been postponed.

Designs for a next generation aircraft carrier called Storm also remain on paper, in part because without access to the Mykolayiv shipyard, Russia would have to retool one of its own.

Gas turbine engines matter because they have a better power-to-weight ratio, generating not only the extra power thrust that’s needed to propel an 11,490 ton ship such as the Moskva forward, but the electricity that’s increasingly important for complex systems on modern warships, according to Kaushal.

New generation directed-energy weapons and rail guns, in particular, would rely on large amounts of electrical power that only a gas turbine or nuclear powered engine can provide. Russia says it has programs to develop both.

The sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine are another complicating factor. Its naval vessels rely on significant quantities of imported parts and technologies from nations that have enacted bans on technology exports.

“Russian glory burns off the coast of Ukraine,” Zubov wrote in his post. “I do not know how many sailors were killed and maimed.”

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