Russia’s Sunken Warship Dents Both Pride and Capability
How the Moskva caught fire on Wednesday night remains disputed. The Russian Defense Ministry said the warship’s ammunition magazine had exploded. Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region Maksym Marchenko, backed by the Defense Ministry, said he was hit by two Neptune missiles, a new Ukrainian anti-ship system of which there is only one battery.
Russian news agencies reported late Thursday, citing the Defense Ministry, that the ship sank in bad weather while being towed to port.
The result is an embarrassment for Russia and a victory for Ukraine. The ship gained notoriety early in the war for a confrontation with a small contingent of Ukrainian guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea who, in colorful terms, allegedly told the Moskva to get lost.
It will also cost Russia militarily. While old – she was commissioned in 1982 – the Slava (Glory) Moskva class was refitted in 2010. She provided a mobile long-range air defense bubble for the rest of the fleet, as well as command and control systems. These abilities cannot be easily replaced.
“It is the only class of ship that the Russian Navy currently has that has a long-range air defense system,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a maritime power researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank based in London. “It’s important because for the kind of operations the Black Sea Fleet is designed for, the Moskva has the ability to sit down and create air defense for the rest of the fleet, while providing the command and control.”
A Western official described the Ukrainian claim of a missile strike on the Moskva River as credible and its loss as a 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 limits access through the Bosphorus Strait to Russian naval vessels.
So far, the Russian Navy has played a relatively minor role in the war, used mainly as an additional source of cruise missile launchers to attack targets across Ukraine. The Moskva did not have one, but it carried the anti-ship missiles that made it a spearhead for use against US aircraft carrier fleets during the Cold War.
“These ships would completely neutralize the US aircraft carrier fleet,” Russian historian and opposition politician Andrei Zubov wrote in a Facebook post titled “The Inglorious End of the Glory” on Thursday. He remembered the words of his father, who oversaw the construction of the Moskva among other large naval and civilian ships.
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 didn’t see how today’s Russian strategists used his pride,” he said. “It’s a big military mistake in itself to use an anti-aircraft deterrent as a ship to provide fire support for an amphibious landing.”
This is especially the case given that the ship’s defense systems and analog radar were obsolete. The Moskva had a crew of around 500, and Moscow says they were evacuated from the ship.
Although the Black Sea Fleet had set out to attack Odessa several times since the start of the war on February 24, it did not follow through. This is largely, according to Kaushal, because with a capability to land 3,000 troops, the amphibious force the fleet can deploy is too small to act without a larger ground assault.
This ground assault has not yet taken place, as Russian forces have still been blocked in Mykolaiv, the gateway to Odessa and the largest Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. Had they broken through, the Moskva could have cast a protective bubble around an amphibious attack, just as it did during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
A person close to the Russian Defense Ministry said it would be very difficult with or without the Moskva to attack Odessa from the sea, and framed it as a more symbolic loss. Yet Russia only had a small number of this class of ships and lacked Soviet-era shipbuilding capabilities, the person said.
Mykolayiv helps explain why the Moskva is unlikely to be replaced in the medium term. Not only does the city have the only shipyard in the former Soviet Union capable of building an aircraft carrier, but it is also home to Zorya-Mashproekt, a producer of gas turbine engines for large ships such as the Moskva.
The loss of access to the shipyard and engine manufacturer after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of neighboring Crimea has complicated his efforts to modernize the navy and would make it more difficult to produce another Moskva today. A project to build destroyers similar in size to the Slava-class cruisers was postponed.
Designs for a next-generation aircraft carrier called Storm also remain on paper, in part because without access to the Mykolaiv shipyard, Russia would have to refit one of its own.
Gas turbine engines are important because they have a better power-to-weight ratio, generating not only the extra power thrust needed to propel an 11,490-ton ship like the Moskva forward, but also the electricity that is increasingly important for the complex systems of modern warships, according to Kaushal.
Next-generation directed-energy weapons and railguns, in particular, would depend 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.
Another complicating factor is the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Its warships depend on significant quantities of parts and technology imported from countries that have enacted bans on technology exports.
“Russian glory is burning off the coast of Ukraine,” Zubov wrote in his post. “I don’t know how many sailors were killed and maimed.”