A blow to the Russians, “a harm that was more psychological than material”. This is how the wreck of the missile cruiser Moskva, the main ship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, has been classified.
The vessel sank after being deeply damaged by an explosion on Wednesday (13/04), the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed.
The ship was being towed into port when “stormy seas” caused it to sink, according to Russian authorities.
Ukraine’s government claims the explosion was caused by an attack carried out by its forces. According to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, they would have used a Neptune missile, manufactured nationally after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
However, Moscow does not report any attacks and says the ship sank as a result of a fire caused by the explosion of munitions that were on the vessel.
The United States described the sinking of the ship as a “major blow” but could not confirm whether Ukrainian Neptune missiles were responsible.
At 12,490 tons, the Moskva is the largest Russian warship sunk in combat since World War II.
The 510-crew vessel was a symbol of Russia’s military might and led the naval part of the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Now Russia will have to continue the battle without its main vessel, which has been touted as a difficult task.
A “humiliating” loss
Experts agree that this is a major setback for Russian forces, for both military and moral reasons.
Most do not doubt that this will further complicate the Kremlin’s ambitions in Ukraine.
“The disappearance of the once-mighty Moskva is seen as poetic justice in Ukraine,” explains Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent.
“This incident is likely to result in Russian warships having to move further away from the coast for safety reasons,” he added.
Jenny Hill, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, says the sinking of the Moskva is a “significant and humiliating” loss for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Blow to national pride
Putin insists on several occasions that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is proceeding successfully, “as planned”.
But Hill says the sinking of the Moskva is something like “a blow to national pride”.
“What was once a symbol of Russia’s power and ambition is now at the bottom of the sea,” adds the journalist.
In Russia, the morning television bulletins were limited to briefly repeating, on Friday morning (4/15), the statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Some commentators argue that the firefighting system aboard the forty-year-old battleship was old and inefficient.
For Mykola Bielieskov of Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, the damage is “more psychological than material”.
“(The ship’s sinking) will not completely end Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine,” he told the BBC.
“But it is a powerful symbol that sophisticated weapons can be used effectively,” he added.
Russians most vulnerable now
Bielieskov, who advises the Ukrainian government on military strategy, said “Russian ships will now be forced to move away from the Ukrainian coast, where they can no longer feel safe.”
The Moskva did not fire missiles at Ukrainian land targets, but military experts told the BBC the vessel provided crucial support to other vessels that did.
The remaining ships in the Russian Black Sea Fleet will now be more vulnerable to air strikes, although it is unclear whether Ukraine’s forces, which have suffered numerous casualties since the start of the war, have the resources to take advantage of the situation.
“Moskva was the only ship in the fleet to have long-range air defenses on board,” explained Sidharth Kaushal, a marine energy specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“While smaller ships bombed Ukrainian cities, Moskva provided air cover over a wide area.”
The Moskva missile cruiser was previously used by Moscow in the Syrian conflict, where it provided naval protection for Russian forces in the country.
It is the second major ship that Russia has lost since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.
Admiral Alan West, former chief of the United Kingdom’s Naval General Staff, says that in addition to being a military coup, the loss of the ship is “very shameful”.
“It has a big impact,” West said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 before Russia confirmed the Moskva had sunk.
“Putin loves the navy. When he came to power, the navy was the first area of the Soviet forces in which he strove. He always had a certain preference for the navy.”
The battleship was, for many years, a “symbol of Russian naval power in the Black Sea”, according to Michael Petersen of the Russian Institute of Maritime Studies.
“The Moskva has been a thorn in the side of the Ukrainians since the beginning of this conflict,” Petersen told the BBC, before adding that seeing the vessel destroyed would be “a real morale booster for the Ukrainians”.
Early in the conflict, Moskva gained notoriety after her crew ordered Ukrainian border troops defending Cobra Island in the Black Sea to surrender.
The guards refused, radioing a memorable rejection message that loosely translates to “go to hell.”
Originally built in the Soviet era, the Moskva entered service in the early 1980s and was the most feared ship in the region. Whether it’s a fire, as Moscow claims, or a Neptune missile, as Kiev claims, the battle for control of Ukraine has snatched that title from the vessel.