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Moskva cruiser

Does the Sinking of Russia's Moskva Warship Matter and Why?

April 22, 2022
Simon Saradzhyan

The sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship this month has been hailed as a poetic victory for Ukrainian forces deeply in need of a morale boost, but commentators diverge on whether the loss has practical implications that could alter the course of the war. Some, such as Ukraine’s Arkady Babchenko, claim that the sinking of the Moskva leaves Black Sea Fleet warships involved in the blockade of Ukraine without most of their air defense and makes a renewed assault on the city of Odessa problematic. Others, such as Russia’s Alexander Khramchikhin, (perhaps predictably) downplay the military significance of the loss, arguing that it will have no effect on the course of the war. Below, find these and other informed views on whether the sinking of the Moskva matters and why.  

B.J. Armstrong, Contributing Editor, War on the Rocks, U.S.

“It appears that the sinking of the Moskva has caused Russian warships to push themselves further offshore in order to avoid missile attacks. This transitions what had been a relatively close blockade to a far blockade and potentially opens up the seas for Ukrainian small craft to begin operating ... Questions remain about Russian magazines of the missiles, and their ability to reload them. The loss of the Moskva, armed entirely with anti-ship and anti-air missiles, is far less significant ... than the Turkish closing of the Bosporus to warships, which keeps the Russians from reinforcing their fleet.” (War on the Rocks, 04.21.22)

Arkady Babchenko, Military Writer, Ukraine (and formerly Russia)

“Displacement of the Moskva is eleven and a half thousand tons. That’s enough metal to build 250 tanks. The initial price is 2 billion dollars … If one were to calculate what the sinking of the Moskva would equal in terms of loss of land-based assets, then these losses would amount to the simultaneous destruction of personnel of a battalion tactical group, three S-300 batteries, one Iskander battery, a platoon of a self-propelled artillery guns, an air defense platoon, two APC platoons, one MLRS, one helicopter, one Krasukha-4 electronic warfare station, an airfield support radar station and ... a group of armies HQ. It would be a catastrophic defeat ... The fields would be littered with corpses and torn iron. … But even that is not the main damage: the Moskva provided protection for the transfer of troops to Berdyansk [a key resupply port] and provided most of the air defense for the Black Sea Fleet. It provided air defense for ships involved in the blockade of Ukraine. It was supposed to provide air defense for the assault on Odessa and to command that assault, which Putin has announced to be the second part of the special operation. And it has been commanding sea operations. None of this will happen now. … With one shot, Ukraine has changed the balance of power in the entire region.” (Facebook post, 04.15.22)

Peter Beaumont, Senior Writer at The Guardian, U.K.

“Whatever the cause of the sinking, it is hard to see this as anything short of a pretty catastrophic incident for Russia. Naval vessels are designed to survive attack as much as possible. … The sinking of the Black Sea fleet’s flagship is certainly a coup for Ukrainian morale and a symbolic blow to Russia. However it is worth recalling that Ukraine scuttled its own flagship in port earlier in the conflict, and that British naval forces continued to operate effectively in the Falklands despite the loss of ships. And while significant, the sinking probably does not alter the Russian navy’s continuing and largely uncontested ability to blockade Ukraine’s coastline. The big question, however, is whether it could affect any future Russian move to land amphibious forces, perhaps as part of an assault on Odessa.” (The Guardian, 04.15.22)

James Black, Expert on Russian Military, RAND, U.S.

[Black] said that the damage to the Moskva is more significant because of previous Russian naval losses, No matter what caused the damage to the Moskva, Black said, “it will likely be seen as poetic justice by Ukrainians and their supporters.” (The Washington Post, 04.14.22)

Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko and George Barros, Analysts, Institute for the Study of War, U.S.

“The loss of the Moskva—regardless if from a Ukrainian strike or an accident—is a major propaganda victory for Ukraine ... The loss of the Moskva will degrade Russian air defenses in the Black Sea but is unlikely to deal a decisive blow to Russian operations on the whole. The Moskva is unlikely to have supported Russian strikes on Ukrainian land targets and primarily provided air defense coverage to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine's possibly demonstrated ability to target Russian warships in the Black Sea may change Russian operating patterns, forcing them to either deploy additional air and point-defense assets to the Black Sea battlegroup or withdraw vessels from positions near the Ukrainian coast.” (IOW backgrounder, 04.14.22)

Yuri Fedorov, Defense Analyst, Russia

“A ship of this class can serve for a very long time. America, which has the most serious navy in the world, has ships that serve for 40 or 50 years. And if you maintain them from time to time, and carry out repairs, modernize them, install new electronic systems, they can serve for a very long time. ... [In this regard,] the cruiser Moskva is indeed not the most successful project. … There is another ship of this type that can carry heavy missiles—the cruiser Peter the Great, but it stands alone, first of all. Second, ships like these are insanely expensive. And third, to build a cruiser like this in Russia is simply not possible, because the only shipyard that was able to build both Peter the Great and the Moskva is in Mykolayiv [ed: Ukraine]. This means Russia would need to build new shipyards where ships of this class could be built. Is it possible that one of the factors underlying Russia’s decision to rush into this attack on Ukraine was to recover access to its shipbuilding complex in Mykolayiv? Who knows?” (Meduza’s What Happened?, 04.19.22)

Dmitry Gorenburg, Military Analyst and Senior Research Scientist, CNA, U.S.

“This was a Soviet era cruiser ... that hadn't been modernized. It didn't have land attack cruise missiles, like the Kalibr. There had been some reporting that it was used to launch attacks on Ukrainian command centers and so forth. That's not the case ... it was serving kind of a coordinating function. ... This is a huge symbolic victory for Ukraine more so than a practical military use for this specific ship. [Though] there will be changes in how the Russian navy operates now that they know that they're in greater danger than they though. I do think that the navy will keep their ships further away from the shore.” (War on the Rocks’ The Warcast, 04.15.22)

Alexander Khramchikhin, Lead Analyst, Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Russia

“The ship is really very old. Actually, there have been plans to scrap it for five years now … It has more status value than real combat value, and in general, had nothing to do with the current operation. It will have no effect on the course of hostilities.” (Reuters, 04.14.22)

Michael Kofman, Research Program Director, Russia Studies Program, CNA, U.S.

Major loss for the Russian navy.” (Twitter, 04.13.22)

“The sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, is not just a significant loss, it is emblematic of the shambolic Russian military campaign.” (The Guardian, 04.15.22)

Sumantra Maitra, National Security Fellow, Center for the National Interest, U.S./U.K.

"According to an unnamed Western official, One of its key roles was to provide the command and control function across those vessels operating in the Black Sea ... they ought to have sufficient capability to continue to provide air defense [to] their maritime forces. Does that mean her upgrades were not done properly? In that case, is this symbolic of all Russian military upgrades? Put simply, was it incompetence, i.e., an individual human error, or structural problems, i.e., organizational errors due to either corruption or a sign of something far more systemic, that led to Russia losing a capital ship? These questions have serious implications for future Anglo-American naval strategy. After all, in the age of contested multipolarity, most of the future battlefields are going to be, as ever, in the high seas. The fate of a tired old giant like Moskva, facing missiles from coastal defenses and sinking while trying to provide air-defense cover to her flotilla—work beneath her station, far from what she was meant to do—would pale in comparison to the absolute carnage that awaits both Chinese and Western capital ships in the Indo-Pacific." (The National Interest, 04.19.22)

Kevin Ryan, Senior Fellow, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, U.S.

“If they start losing their fleet during this war, before the war is even done, the impact on their long-term strategy will be tremendous.” (The Hill, 04.16.22)

H.I. Sutton, Defense Analyst, U.S.

"The loss of the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), Moskva, is a serious blow to the Russian navy. And a massive propaganda coup for the Ukrainians who could not have wished for a more symbolic target. Moskva was a dated platform. It’s offensive capabilities, with P-1000 Vulkan missiles, were still formidable. And it’s S-300F still relevant. Yet it had received few upgrades to keep it up to date. Its situational awareness and defensive capabilities were likely dated. This highlights the challenges which have been facing the Russian navy for the past 30 years. There is a mismatch between Russia’s financial situation and its naval assets. This has led to increased reliance on legacy platforms. ... It is hard to predict where the naval aspect of the war will go from here. Russia still has a numerical and technological advantage in the Northern Black Sea, but Ukraine appears to have a means to fight back. Russia still has control of merchant shipping, but she may have lost full command of the sea." (Naval News, 04.15.22)

Unnamed U.S. Naval Analyst

[Said that] the Moskva sinking showed a failure of imagination that such an attack could come from the Ukrainian shore, a failure of the ship's self-defense systems, a failure of damage control after the hits and—if many of its crew died, as is widely thought—possibly a failure in basic procedures to save lives. "It doesn't teach us a single thing about surface ships," the analyst said. (Nikkei, 04.20.22)

Unnamed High-Ranking Russian Naval Officer (in 2019)

“Until the Moskva becomes the Cheonan, nothing will change for us.” (Voeyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, 01.14.19)

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