Late last Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, two Ukrainian R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles struck the Moskva, an Atlant-class cruiser that was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The ship eventually sank because of the damage. There are still numerous conflicting reports about exactly what happened: whether Ukraine distracted the Moskva with drones before attacking it with missiles, questions about how many of the crew died and the circumstances of the final sinking, etc. What is crystal clear is that the Moskva is at the bottom of the Black Sea, that the Ukrainians put it there, and therefore that Russia has suffered an embarrassing naval defeat against a country that, in effect, no longer has a fleet. The reaction of some Russian propagandists to the sinking also provides an interesting example of how they are increasingly blaming Russia’s military failures on NATO, rather than on Ukrainian resistance.
The significance of the sinking of the Moskva to the current fighting is mostly on the symbolism/morale front. The main armament of the Moskva were anti-ship missiles, which are not relevant while the Ukrainian navy is out of action. (The Ukrainian navy has lost at least one ship out on patrol, and the Ukrainian naval base at Odesa has probably been struck multiple times and destroyed their capabilities further. The Ukrainian ships that remain lack the weaponry to take on the Russian fleet.) The loss of the anti-aircraft/anti-missile capabilities of the Moskva might be a technical blow to the Russian Black Sea fleet (it carried an S-300 AA system), but its significance is unclear. (Any air defense systems it had were obviously not sufficient to defend the ship itself, or perhaps they were switched off.) According to retired Ukrainian naval Capt. Andrii Ryzhenko, the Russian Black Sea fleet has three main tasks: 1) blockade Ukrainian ports, 2) neutralize the Ukrainian navy, and 3) conduct a landing operation if needed. The Moskva is not needed to blockade Ukrainian ports, the Ukrainian fleet is unfortunately already ineffective as its remaining ships have inadequate armament to pose a serious threat to Russian ships, and a naval landing near Odesa would make sense only as part of the three-pronged attack from the Russian base in Transnistria (a Russian proxy enclave in Moldova), Mykolaiv, and the sea, something which does not appear to be in the cards as the Ukrainians have turned back the Russian assault on Mykolaiv.
The main thing the Russians lost was not any specific capability but their flagship, one that had already become internationally emblematic early in the war. On February 24, the first day of Putin’s expanded war, it was the Moskva that demanded the surrender of the Ukrainians defending Zmiinyi Island (aka Snake island). A Ukrainian defender delivered the memorable reply “Russian warship, go f— yourself.” The Moskva then opened fire with its twin 130mm deck guns and, with the help of at least one other Russian warship, forced the Ukrainian defenders to surrender. The incident became a famous symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Last week the Ukrainian postal service even issued a stamp depicting one of the Ukrainian defenders on Snake Island giving the Moskva the finger.
A photoshopped “updated” stamp showing the Moskva sinking is now floating around social media. Russian media are trying to contain the embarrassment and minimize the sense of disaster. Over the weekend the main Russian news show devoted just 30 seconds to the sinking. The TV channel of the Russian Ministry of Defense broadcast a video of an inspection of the crew of the Moskva by the commander. This video was probably partly motivated by a Russian desire to contradict reports of massive crew casualties and the death of the Moskva’s commander. Even so, the loss of a large ship with a crew of about 450 can’t just be ignored or dismissed. One prominent Russian propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, expressed outrage at this disaster on his live show over the weekend: