The sinking of the ‘Moskva’, a blow to the pride and confidence of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea

Until then, Russian dominance in the Black Sea seemed indisputable. The loss of the Russian cruiser ‘Moskva’, sunk on Thursday, represents a major operational stumbling block for the Russians in the war in Ukraine, but above all a colossal symbolic loss.

The flagship of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, in service since the early 1980s, sank in a few hours and with it part of the pride of President Vladimir Putin’s armed forces, already proven since the beginning of his invasion from Ukraine at the end of February.

According to Moscow, it was hit by a fire that detonated ammunition. For Kyiv, he was the victim of a missile attack. A version accredited this Friday by the Pentagon.

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In both cases, “it is a very strong symbolic loss,” said former Admiral Pascal Ausseur, director general of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES).

A ship like this is usually trained to keep fighting after one or more hits and knows how to control a fire, the warship’s bane. “It is a 12,000-ton ship, which sank in 12 hours (…). It is not as planned,” he added to AFP.

This 186-meter missile cruiser was armed with 16 Bazalt/Voulkan anti-ship missiles, Fort missiles, the naval version of the long-range S-300 missiles, and short-range Ossa missiles. It also had rocket launchers, cannons and torpedoes.

It is a very strong symbolic loss.”

Former Admiral Pascal AusseurGeneral Director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies

Its crew could number 680 men, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. “It provided air cover for the other ships during their operations, in particular the shelling of the coast and the landing maneuvers,” said the spokesman for the Odessa regional military administration Sergei Bratchouk, in Telegram.

The operating deficit is significant and manageable for Moscow, according to Western sources contacted by AFP.

He protected the entire 150-kilometre diameter around his position, Nick Brown, an expert at the British private intelligence institute Janes, told AFP.

It will be difficult to replace its air defense capabilities with the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits closed by Turkey to Russian ships.”

Nick BrownBritish private intelligence institute expert Janes

“With the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits closed by Turkey to Russian ships, it will be difficult for Russia to replace its air defense capabilities,” he said.

But “the rest of the Black Sea Fleet remains a powerful force,” it tempers, with in particular modern Admiral Grigorovich-type frigates equipped with more modern air defenses than the Moskva, albeit shorter-range, and Kalibr land-attack missiles. “The Russian fleet has not been put out of action.”

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LV_The cruiser 'Moscow', in flames after a Ukrainian missile attack

However, Moscow takes a spectacular slap. After refusing, against all odds, to gain absolute control of Ukrainian airspace, and having shown significant tactical and strategic weaknesses in the first weeks of its ground operations, here is your navy affected.

“We find the same mistakes at sea that the Russians make on land,” a French high command bluntly cuts.

“The loss of the ship itself will technically not set Moscow back, as the Russian Navy’s involvement in the war was quite limited,” said Maia Otarashvili of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Washington.

We find the same mistakes at sea that the Russians make on land.”

French high command

But Moscow could take it into account if it considered “more directly involving the Navy in the conflict.”

Because if the Moskva was indeed hit by Neptune missiles, perhaps combined with the use of a drone for marking or decoy purposes, as the Ukrainian forces claim, the question of the reality of its equipment arises.

“Does Ukraine have naval defense capabilities that Moscow has not assessed?” asks Maia Otarashvili, noting that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has consistently called for coastal missiles to fill its gaps.

“What kind of newly obtained anti-ship missiles does Ukraine have? What kind of damage could it cause to the Russian Navy?”

Analysis of the hull of the sunken ship will reveal whether or not it was hit by missiles

Details of the attack on the ship will not be immediately known. The observation of the hull is essential to establish them, but now it is at the bottom of the Black Sea.

The image of a prestigious ship remains, which stood out in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria in 2015-2016, with a supposedly experienced crew that considered it essential to evacuate the ship because it could not be saved.

“It was the command ship, probably the personnel that commanded the naval group were there,” concludes Pascal Ausseur. They will need to designate another building to carry out these coordination functions.

“It is a very small sea, the whole world is within range of anti-ship missiles. Detection and identification are very easy,” he adds. The disappearance of the Moskva “shows a real vulnerability” of the Russian navy.