Did Ukraine take out Russia's Black Sea flagship? Update: "Gross incompetence," or something else?

Did Ukraine take out Russia's Black Sea flagship?
(AP Photo / Ivan Sekretarev)

Russia claims its sailors abandoned the cruiser Moskva as a result of a “munitions explosion.” Ukraine claims it sunk Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea flagship using Neptun cruise missiles. Russia has countered that the ship hasn’t sunk … yet:


Ukraine said its forces struck and seriously damaged the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, dealing a potentially major setback to Moscow’s troops as they try to regroup for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine after retreating from much of the north, including the capital.

Russia said Thursday the entire crew of the Moskva, a warship that would typically have 500 sailors on board, was forced to evacuate after a fire overnight and also reported it was badly damaged. But it did not acknowledge any attack, which, in addition to any practical impact, would also deal a major blow to Russian prestige seven weeks into a war that is already widely seen as a historic blunder. …

Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC show the Moskva steaming out of the port of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula on Sunday.

Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region, across the Black Sea to the northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.” Russia’s Defense Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire and that it was investigating the cause of the blaze.

Who’s telling the truth? One side has video, although this clip sent out on Twitter by an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t offer much more than flashes in the dark:


Twitter translates this from Russian, but it appears that it’s in Ukrainian. Here’s the Google translation, in which the claim to have sunk Moskva originates:

You will laugh, but но Chernobaevka-15.

Warehouses with ammunition of the 22nd Army Corps (Crimea) were destroyed.

Plus – the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, the cruiser “Moscow” made a negative ascent in the area of the island, where he was sent to the south.

Where is “Moscow”? “She drowned.”

Perhaps not so far, but if the crew abandoned ship, the Moskva — named after Russia’s capital — is clearly in dire straits. That’s another blow to the prestige of the Russian navy, which lost its transport/troop ship Orsk three weeks ago in Berdyansk, as well as taking damage to at least one other ship. These ships are crucial to the logistics of a ground campaign relying on siege strategies, which require enough resupply to keep from breaking down and leaving troops and materiel vulnerable. That’s one reason why Mariupol is such a strategic target for Russia in this war — to allow for better land communication between Donbas and Crimea, which would give Russians the strength they need to press toward Odesa and the interior of Ukraine.

Speaking of Mariupol, are the Russians trying some propaganda overreach of their own?

Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday that 1,026 soldiers of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, had surrendered in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

Mariupol, which has been encircled by Russian troops for weeks, has seen the fiercest fighting and the most comprehensive destruction since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

Russian television on Wednesday broadcast clips of what it said was the surrender. In the footage, unarmed men in military fatigues were visible walking with their hands up along a grass- and tree-lined path towards masked soldiers cradling assault rifles.

In one clip, four marines walked away from a damaged industrial building carrying a wounded person on a stretcher. One of the four carried a makeshift white flag as well. Wounded men were loaded onto a yellow bus.


This time it’s Ukraine’s turn to issue denials. Kyiv insisted that no one has surrendered in Mariupol yet, but acknowledged that the situation keeps growing more desperate. Russian forces have entered the city and split the defense, which even before then was running out of materiel and men. Like the Moskva, it may be only a matter of semantics in Mariupol now, unless Kyiv can find a way to break through the siege and relieve its defenders. But even if Mariupol falls, Russia might still have resupply and logistics issues of its own with the Moskva out of commission and the Ukrainian navy performing far better than Russia anticipated in the Black Sea. Russian hubris took more than one form, it seems.

Update: Former admiral James Stavridis says both Russia and Ukraine could be telling the truth about the Moskva:

I’d had the same thought about the Russian explanation. How does a munitions fire break out and get so bad that it requires sailors to abandon the ship? Gross incompetence would be the simplest explanation, especially given what we’ve seen from Russian infantry and army leadership so far. But sabotage might be another explanation in support of the Russian version of this story, which might be even worse than admitting to a Ukrainian naval victory.


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