What is the significance of Russia’s Moskva warship sinking?

The flagship vessel of the Black Sea Fleet entered service in Soviet times and had been deployed in conflicts from Georgia to Syria.

A Russian sailor salutes on the bow of the Moskva.
Russia said the Moskva, seen here about to dock in Sevastopol, sunk in a storm as it was being towed back to port after a fire. Ukraine says it attacked the ship [File: Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo]

The Moskva, the warship named in honour of the Russian capital and the pride of the country’s Black Sea fleet, has sunk after a fire on board.

The Soviet-era vessel saw service during conflicts in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine and helped conduct peacetime scientific research with the United States.

It was an inglorious demise for a ship initially christened the Slava, or ‘Glory’.

What happened?

The Russian Defence Ministry says the Moskva was badly damaged by a fire and sank in a storm as it was being towed to port.

It previously said that “a detonation of ammunition” triggered a fire and forced the crew to evacuate.

A Ukrainian official claimed it had struck the Moskva with a Neptune cruise missile after successfully diverting the ship’s radar systems.

The US says it has been able to confirm Ukraine’s claims.

The ship, which would usually have about 500 sailors on board, was thought to be located in the Black Sea somewhere off the Ukrainian port of Odesa at the time of the fire.

What is the significance of the sinking?

The 12,500 tonne Moskva was armed with multiple anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, and was the only ship of its class in the Black Sea. The two other missile cruisers – the Marshal Ustinov and the Varyag – are deployed with Russia’s Northern and Pacific fleets respectively.

A satellite image of the Moskva in port Sevastopol in Crimea on April 7
A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the Moskva in the port of Sevastopol in Crimea on April 7 [Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP Photo]

The Institute for the Study of War (IOW) says it was not able to verify that Ukraine had sunk the warship, but the Moskva’s loss – regardless of the cause – was a “major propaganda victory for Ukraine”. In contrast, it was likely to undermine Russian morale, the institute said.

In military terms, however, the loss might not be so significant.

IOW says the Moskva was probably mainly used to conduct Kalibr cruise missile attacks on sites including logistic centres and airfields in Ukraine.

“These strikes have been effective but limited in number compared to airstrikes and ground-launched missiles throughout the invasion and the loss of the Moskva is unlikely to be a decisive blow,” IOW said.

Russian military experts have also played down the sinking’s military significance.

“The ship is really very old. Actually, there have been plans to scrap it for five years now,” Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchikhin told the Reuters news agency.

“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.”

What is the Moskva’s history?

The Moskva was among a group of ships that the Soviet Union designed in the late 1970s to counter US aircraft carrier groups and provide air defence to Soviet vessels operating in distant oceans.

At the time, they were nicknamed “carrier killers”.

The warship was launched as the Slava from a shipyard in Mykolaiv in Ukraine – then part of the Soviet Union – in July 1979, according to open-source intelligence firm Janes. Commissioned in late December 1982, it was 186 metres (610 feet) long and designed to carry a crew of 476 with an additional 62 officers.

The Slava was the flagship of the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea and was equipped with deck guns, torpedoes and mortars, as well as nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It also had a helicopter deck.

Silvio Berlusconi walks with Vladimir Putin next to an honour guard of sailors on the Moskva in Sardinia in 2003
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted world leaders on board the Moskva, including then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during Putin’s visit to Sardinia in 2003 [File: Itar-Tass/Presidential Press Service via Reuters]

It underwent repairs during the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s economy struggled and Ukraine emerged as an independent, sovereign nation.

Renamed the Moskva, President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, hosted world leaders on board, including then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on a 2003 visit to Sardinia.

In 2008, during Russia’s war in Georgia – also once part of the Soviet Union – the Moskva was involved in operations in the Black Sea. The Georgian government said the ship also took part in an attack on the country.

The Moskva briefly took part in a blockade of the Ukrainian navy in March 2014 as part of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The following year, it provided air defence for Russian forces operating in Syria.

The Moskva’s sailors were decorated for their service there and in the war on Georgia.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the ship took part in an attack on Zmiinyi – or Snake Island. In audio widely circulated online, a Ukrainian soldier responds: “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”

The incident has become a rallying point for Ukraine and the country has just released postal stamps commemorating the encounter.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies