Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suffered a major blow on Thursday morning after an attack on the Russian Navy’s guided-missile cruiser Moskva (pictured above) left the ship crippled and forced sailors to abandon the ship before it ultimately sunk in the Black Sea. Ukrainian forces reportedly attacked it with anti-ship missiles, though Russia is denying the claim. Moskva was one of the largest and most heavily-armed surface warships in the world.
The attack took place Wednesday evening, as Moskva was 60-65 nautical miles south of the Ukrainian city of Odessa, according to U.S. Naval Institute News. According to unconfirmed reports from Ukraine, a TB-2 Bayraktar drone tracked the ship down. Once located, Ukrainian forces launched two Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles, which reportedly struck the ship on its port side.
On Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense released a statement on Telegram—an instant-messaging app that Ukrainians and Russians, alike, have relied on for news about the ongoing war—claiming that a fire broke out on Moskva, ultimately leading to her demise.
Here is the English translation of the report, which conflicts with Ukraine’s version of events:
The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation reports that the ship lost stability during the towing of the cruiser “Moscow” to the port of destination due to damage to the hull received during the fire from the detonation of ammunition. The ship sank in the storms of the sea.
Moskva was one of three Slava-class guided-missile cruisers built for the Soviet Navy in the 1980s. U.S. spy satellites observed the ships—originally designated BLACKCOM1 by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—while under construction at the Nikolayev (now Mykolaiv) shipyards in what is now Ukraine. The Slava-class cruisers are 610 feet long, displace 11,410 tons fully loaded, and have a top speed of 32 knots. They also have large crews of 485 officers and enlisted hands.
The Slava-class cruisers were built to hunt down aircraft carriers in the event of a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which was headquartered in the Soviet Union. Each cruiser is armed with 16 P-500 Bazalt anti-ship missiles (see video above). Each Bazalt is just over 40 feet long, weighs 10,500 pounds, and carries a 2,000-pound, high-explosive or nuclear warhead. The missiles are so large they are stored in angled launch tubes amidships, eight on each side of the ship.
Moskva was also theoretically more than capable of defending herself, with 64 S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles, 40 Osa-M surface-to-air missiles, and six AK-630M close-in weapon systems with 30-millimeter Gatling guns.
The Neptune missile is a Ukrainian subsonic, low-altitude anti-ship cruise missile. The missiles are based on the Cold War-era SS-N-25 “Switchblade,” which was so closely modeled on the American AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile, it was derisively nicknamed “Harpoonski.” After the Cold War, Russia fielded newer versions of the missile as the Kh-35, while Ukraine went on to develop the Neptune, which has a range of 190 miles and packs a 330-pound, high-explosive warhead.
USNI News, quoting an unnamed U.S. defense official, said that Moskva suffered major damage and was headed to the port of Sebastopol, part of the territory that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. RIA Novosti, a Russian state-controlled news outlet, made no mention of a missile attack, attributing the incident to a shipboard fire.
However, other Black Sea Fleet ships quickly repositioned after the attack, moving to positions 80 nautical miles off the coast of Ukraine—a position that coincidentally puts them at the extreme outer range of Neptune missiles. This makes it likely that Moskva did indeed suffer a shipboard fire: one that was caused by Neptune missiles. Moskva is the largest warship lost to enemy action since World War II.
Here’s a nice video showing off Moskva’s air defense systems, as she sailed off the coast of Latakia, Syria, to use the systems to provide area air defense:
It’s unclear exactly how such a theoretically well-protected ship could receive such catastrophic damage; after all, Moskva had the weapons and sensors to fend off such an attack. The failure to protect the ship might lie in poorly-performing systems or human error. In a military campaign wracked by improperly-working weapons and general ineptitude, either seems possible.
The attack on Moskva shows how dangerous anti-ship missiles are to modern warships, and is a serious blow to the prestige of Russia and the Russian Navy. Ironically, while Moskva spent her four-decade naval career trotting the globe, the ship ultimately met her end just a few hundred miles from where she was built.