It is the biggest naval loss since the second world war
THREE YEARS ago The Economist’s defence correspondent was sailing back to Odessa on the Hetman Sahaidachny, then the flagship of Ukraine’s navy. A plaque in its wardroom honoured its former captains. Two names were scratched out—they had defected to Russia when it seized Crimea in 2014. In late February this year, as Russian forces approached once more, the Hetman Sahaidachny was scuttled in Mykolaiv, complete with its 1943-vintage gun.
Now Ukraine seems to have had its revenge. On April 14th Ukrainian officials said they had used Neptune anti-ship missiles to hit the Moskva, a 10,000-tonne Slava-class cruiser which was 60-65 nautical miles (111-120km) south of Odessa. The Moskva, commissioned in 1982, is—or, perhaps, was—the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in occupied Crimea. It was a “venerable, battle hardened, major surface combatant” which participated in Russian wars in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015, notes Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College London. “This is one of the most severe naval losses since the Falklands war” of 1982, he adds.
Russia’s defence ministry first acknowledged that the Moskva was “seriously damaged”, claiming that a fire had caused ammunition to detonate, but that the ship stayed afloat—a fact corroborated by the Pentagon. But magazine explosions tend to be devastating. Later it admitted that the Moskva had sunk. A Western official was unable to corroborate Ukraine’s claim, but described it as credible: “I am not aware previously of a fire on board a capital warship, which would lead to the ammunition magazine exploding.”
The strike is rich with symbolism. The ship was built in Mykolaiv, then a Soviet city but now a Ukrainian one which has repelled Russian ground assaults over the past month. It was also one of two warships that attacked Snake Island, west of Crimea, on February 24th, the first day of the war. When it ordered the tiny garrison there to surrender, the alleged reply—“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—became an icon of national resistance, emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps. The Moskva’s apparent loss was “a massively important military event”, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on social media. He cast it as the Russian navy’s biggest defeat since the second world war. Of particular note was the weapon the Ukrainians used. The Neptune, though modelled on the Russian Kh-35 (or Kayak) anti-ship missile, was designed and built in Ukraine. It is not the first time that Neptune has been fired in anger. Oleksandr Turchynov, a former Ukrainian national security council chief, says that the missile was first used to hit the Admiral Essen, a Russian frigate, on April 3rd. The rockets entered the navy’s inventory only in January this year, after corruption scandals delayed their introduction. That the Moskva was parked so close to Odessa, well within the known range of the Neptune, suggests that Russia might have seriously under-estimated its threat. It is not the only example of home-made kit on the battlefield: local innovations in passive radar and helicopter technologies have also surprised the Russians, says Hanna Shelest, a security expert in Odessa.
The strike on the Moskva is more than just a symbolic act of revenge or a demonstration of indigenous prowess. It fits a pattern of bold Ukrainian attacks beyond the frontlines, known as deep strikes. On March 29th an ammunition depot in Belgorod, a key staging point in Russia, was blown up. Belgorod is vital to Russia’s effort to build up forces for an attack on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, now the focus of its war. A day later Ukrainian helicopters reportedly attacked a fuel depot there and, on April 12th, a railway bridge was destroyed. On April 14th Russia said that more Ukrainian helicopters had attacked its Bryansk region, which neighbours Belarus, causing seven injuries. Such attacks—by helicopters, missiles and special forces—tie down Russian units that must defend rear areas. They also “add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistic chains”, according to British defence intelligence. Russia’s defence ministry is evidently fed up: on April 13th it warned that it would target command centres in Kyiv if Ukraine continued to attack its rear areas. Though the war’s decisive battles have played out on land, around Kyiv and other cities, the apparent loss of the Moskva is also an important moment in the naval contest. By and large, on the water Russia has had the upper hand. It has cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and maintained a blockade of its Black Sea coastline. That has devastated Ukraine’s economy and choked off grain exports, with wider consequences for global food prices. But Russia’s control of the sea is not absolute. Ukraine has now struck at least four Russian warships, including the Orsk, a landing ship which was hit by ballistic missiles and sunk in the port of Berdyansk on March 24th. Ukraine’s ability to put Russian warships at risk changes the dynamics of the war at sea, says Ms Shelest. Russia has three Slava-class cruisers but the Moskva was the only one in the Black Sea. Russia cannot replace it because of Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus strait to warships not already in the Black Sea or based there. Moreover, the Moskva was not just an offensive platform, but also provided command and control, and air-defence, for a number of other ships. They will now be more vulnerable to Ukrainian missiles or drones; several Russian ships moved away from Ukraine’s coast in the aftermath of the incident on the Moskva, according to an American defence official. The threat of anti-ship missiles already appears to have forced Russia to delay or abandon plans for an amphibious assault on Odessa, which was widely expected in the first phase of the war. Ukraine only has a division’s worth of Neptunes, says Ms Shelest, probably a dozen or so missiles. The factories where its components are made have been subject to heavy Russian attack. Fortunately for Ukraine, more such missiles may be on the way. After Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, visited Mr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9th, the British government said it would send anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. British officials will not say which ones, nor how many, but one possibility would be to improvise a coastal version of a ship-based missile—something that Argentina did, with success, with the French Exocet missile in the Falklands war 40 years ago. That would take time, training and ingenuity. But improvisation, it seems, is Ukraine’s strong suit. ■
Editor’s note (April 14, 2022): This article was updated after Russia confirmed that the Moskva had sunk
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The Moskva, commissioned in 1982, is—or, perhaps, was—the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in occupied Crimea.