Russia’s flagship missile cruiser Moskva has sunk in “stormy seas” while being towed to a port in the Black Sea following an explosion, the Russian defence ministry has announced.
The Ukrainian southern military command claimed late on Wednesday to have struck the Moskva with Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, while distracting its crew with an aerial drone, causing it to start sinking and forcing the crew to abandon ship.
Russia’s defence ministry initially denied reports that it had sunk and claimed the fires had been extinguished. Four Russian ships that had gone to the Moskva’s rescue were being hampered by stormy weather and by ammunition blowing up onboard, it said.
But late on Thursday, the ministry said in a statement: “The cruiser ship Moskva lost its stability when it was towed to the port because of the damage to the ship’s hull that it received during the fire from the detonation of ammunition. In stormy sea conditions, the ship sank.”
Russia had said earlier that the crew of more than 500 crew were evacuated from the Soviet-era missile cruiser to other ships.
The apparent attack and sinking of the Black Sea fleet’s flagship – 50 days after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine – represents a symbolic blow to the Kremlin. The Moskva was the pride of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet and the most prestigious vessel involved in the war against Ukraine.
“The sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, is not just a significant loss, it is emblematic of the shambolic Russian military campaign,” said Michael Kofman, research programme director and Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Commissioned in 1983, the ship was armed with 16 anti-ship Vulkan cruise missiles with a range of at least 440 miles (700km). According to reports, it was also carrying S-300 anti-air missiles, which are crucial to Russia’s air superiority over Crimea and Ukraine’s Kherson province, now occupied by Russian troops.
It is the most significant naval vessel to be sunk since the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed by a British submarine, HMS Conqueror in 1982. It is the first time Moscow has lost a cruiser since German planes sunk the Chervona Ukraina (Red Ukraine) in 1941 at Sevastopol – the same Crimean naval base where the Moskva was being towed towards when it sank.
Maksym Marchenko, the Ukrainian governor of the region around Odesa, said the Moskva had been hit by two cruise missiles. “Neptune missiles guarding the Black Sea caused very serious damage,” he said.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a former secretary of the national security and defence council, said Ukraine had hit another Russian ship two weeks ago with a Neptune cruise missile. He said the missile inflicted “significant damage” on the Admiral Essen, “removing it from combat operation”.
Western officials described the Ukrainian claims to have hit the Moskva with anti-ship missiles as “credible”. A senior US defence official noted that five other Russian vessels which had been as close as or closer to the Ukrainian coast than the Moskva had moved at least another 20 nautical miles offshore after the explosion, suggesting an effort to get out of range of Ukrainian missiles.
“In the wake of the damage that the Moskva experienced, all of the northern Black Sea ships have now moved out, away from that the northern areas they were operating in,” the defence official said. “At this point, we hold them no closer than about 80 nautical miles from the coast.
The Moskva gained notoriety early in the war when the crew demanded the surrender of Ukrainian forces on Snake Island, prompting a riposte from one of the border guards on the island: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
The phrase instantly became a symbol of national defiance, and is now a universal meme. The day before the Moskva was sunk, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy unveiled a new postage stamp portraying the ship and the Ukrainian border guard with his middle finger raised.
The Moskva had been leading a substantial Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, threatening Ukraine’s southern coast and its key ports. This has been one of the main focuses of the Kremlin’s military efforts, and is aimed at cutting off Ukraine’s access to sea and creating a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula to the Russian border.
The Neptune missile which is claimed to have punched a hole in the Moskva’s hull was developed by Ukraine from an old Soviet missile. It is fired from a mobile launcher with a range of a 100km allowing it to be fired from some distance inland.
A western official said there was “enormous determination, ingenuity and initiative of Ukrainian forces in order to be able to strike at Russian forces where perhaps they previously thought they were invulnerable, and a significant impact on Russian maritime operations”.
Ukraine is reported to have a limited supply of Neptune missiles and has appealed for western supplies of anti-ship weapons. The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, promised on a recent visit to Kyiv that British missiles would be made available, but they have not yet arrived.
A senior defence official in Washington said Ukrainian soldiers had been trained in the US to use not only Switchblade aerial drones, which have now been sent to Ukraine, but water-borne unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).
On Wednesday, Joe Biden approved another $800m in US military assistance to Ukraine, make a total of $2.6bn since the beginning of the war. The new tranche will include longer-range air defence systems than had been previously supplied to Ukraine.
“We are working as feverishly as we can to fill those shipments out,” the US defence official said. “We’re under no illusion of the size and the scale of this thing but we also are mindful of the clock. We know time is not our friend, and we’re going to do the best we can to move these shipments as fast as we can and we’re going to front-load them with the kinds of capabilities that we know the Ukrainians need the most.”
The equipment so far delivered or pledged by the US includes 16 Mi-17 helicopters, over 700 Switchblade armed drones, over 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 5,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 18 howitzers and 40,000 155mm artillery rounds.