Whether he is there as a victim of Ukrainian missiles, Russian incompetence, bad luck or some combination of the three is unclear. What is certain, however, is that the biggest warship loss in 40 years will raise troubling questions not just for Moscow, but for military planners around the world.
The ship sank on Thursday off Ukraine in the Black Sea.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a fire of unknown origin blew up the ship’s stored munitions and the resulting explosions left the Moskva with structural damage. It says the warship then sank in rough seas while being towed to a nearby port.
Ukraine says it hit the Moskva with anti-ship cruise missiles and these ignited the fire which detonated the munitions.
US and Western defense officials appear to favor the Ukrainian account.
The United States believes with “medium confidence” that the Ukrainian version of events is accurate, a source familiar with the latest information told CNN.
The Moskva was armed with a range of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as torpedoes, naval guns and missile defense systems, meaning it would have had huge amounts of explosives on board.
When was the last time a ship of this size was lost in war?
The Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed and sunk by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror on May 2, 1982, during the Falkland Islands War.
General Belgrano and Moskva were similar in size – each about 600 feet (182 meters) long and displacing 12,000 tons – although the crew of around 1,100 aboard General Belgrano was more than double that of Moskva’s crew size of about 500.
Russia has not disclosed the number of casualties in the Moskva fire and sinking. A total of 323 crew members died when General Belgrano fell.
What does the loss of the Moskva mean for the Russian war effort?
The greatest effect may be on Russian morale. As the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Moskva was one of its most visible assets in the Ukrainian War. Although Moscow carefully handles information about the war in Russia, it will be difficult to hide the sudden absence of such a large ship.
And its loss will raise doubts about Russia’s combat capabilities, whether due to enemy action or accident.
“Both explanations for the sinking of the Moskva point to possible Russian shortcomings – either poor air defenses or incredibly lax safety procedures and damage control on the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet,” the analysts said. Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko and George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War wrote in their daily war briefing.
Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain, said the doubts went as far as the Kremlin.
“This raises questions about naval proficiency 10 years after (Russian President Vladimir) Putin announced he would restore naval capability, morale and professionalism,” Schuster said.
But analysts are divided on the impact the sinking will have on the Russian invasion.
ISW analysts see this as a relatively minor hit, saying the ship was mainly used for cruise missile strikes on Ukrainian logistics centers and airfields. Russia has ground systems and strike aircraft that can do the same, they said.
However, they added that if it was indeed a Ukrainian missile that led to the sinking, the Russian Navy would have to rethink its operations, possibly moving the ships away from Ukrainian territory and adjusting their air defenses.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Moskva’s primary mission was air defense of Russian forces in the Black Sea.
“It will impact that ability, certainly in the short term,” Kirby told reporters.
A lesson for China?
Analysts say the sinking will be carefully investigated in East Asia, especially if it is confirmed that Ukrainian missiles hit the warship.
In particular, analysts will seek any insight it may offer into any potential military conflict involving Taiwan. – the democratically governed island that Beijing’s ruling Communist Party claims as part of its territory. Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to take control of Taiwan, which has caused tensions with the United States, which has pledged to equip the island with defensive weapons.
Timothy Heath, senior international defense fellow at the RAND Corp. think tank, said the Moskva strike would underscore both China and the United States “the vulnerability of surface ships” in any potential military confrontation.
Heath said that in such a scenario, the US Navy would want to keep its surface ships out of range of anti-ship missiles Beijing has amassed on the Chinese mainland.
China, on the other hand, is said to be aware that Taiwan had acquired cheap anti-ship missiles similar to those Ukraine claims hit the Moskva, Heath and others said.
For this reason, “any potential (Chinese) invasion of Taiwan remains a very high-risk mission,” Heath said.
But some analysts said the sinking of the Moskva had only limited relevance to the situation in East Asia.
Thomas Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submarine commander who is now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said there were too many differences between the situations.
Moskva’s air defense systems aren’t in the same league as more modern Aegis systems on US Navy destroyers, and Ukrainian anti-ship missiles aren’t as good as Chinese missiles, Shugart said.
And Soviet-era warships like the Moskva are generally “known for their offensive power, not their defensive systems or damage control,” Shugart said.