There are public claims by government officials in Ukraine, Lithuania, Turkey, and Romania that the Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been sunk. Ukrainian officials are claiming the Guided Missile Cruiser was struck by two Neptune anti-ship missiles late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

Here is a tentative timeline of events as we understand them.

Thursday, 0100 hrs The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that a “fire” aboard the Cruiser had broken out after an ammunition explosion aboard the ship.

0105 hrs: Reports of an SOS signal in Morse Code was being sent by Moskva.

0114 hrs: According to radio messages from the Cruiser, a port-side list has developed and more explosions occur.

0147 hrs.: The ship has lost electrical power.

0207 hrs: A Turkish vessel responding to the SOS Turkey reports that the “Moskva” appears to be sinking and takes off 54 sailors of the Moskva’s crew.

0248 hrs: Turkish and Romanian authorities report the Cruiser has sunk.

 

Moskva in drydock. Date and photo source unknown.

 

Confused and Conflicting Reports on Moskva’s Condition Abound

For their part, the Kremlin denies the loss of the vessel and claims the fire was extinguished on the flagship of the Black Sea fleet.

“The source of the fire on the cruiser Moskva is localized. There is no open burning. Ammunition explosions stopped,” the ministry said in a statement adding, “The cruiser remains afloat, its main missile armament is not damaged, and measures are being taken to tow the vessel to the port.”  Russia is not acknowledging the assistance of any other vessels saying that the crew of the cruiser was evacuated by other Russian naval vessels in the area.

While several Ukrainian officials have claimed the vessel was hit by two Neptune Cruise Missiles and was sunk when we contacted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence seeking confirmation we were told they were not prepared yet to release a statement on the matter.

Within the last hour, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby told the press that the Moskva was still afloat but clearly damaged. He said it remains unclear whether the damage was caused by Ukraine’s missile attack or some other cause.

We think the Pentagon is making the most accurate report.

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There is a video on Twitter purporting to show the actual strike of the missiles on the ship. a Twitter account belonging to Oleksiy Arestovych an advisor to President Zelensky is shown below.

The video itself is taken in the blackness of night but there are signs it is real.  A series of small flashes can be seen at the beginning which would be consistent with the air defense systems of missiles and cannons on the Moskva reacting to the inbound Neptune missile and then a single large explosion is seen.  This actually undercuts claims by Ukraine that it was hit by two missiles. The second missile may have been brought down or hit so close to the ship that it struck the vessel without exploding. This would still do considerable damage as the Neptune cruise missile is some 15ft long, weighs nearly a ton, and is going just under Mach 1 at impact.

2,000 pounds of wet toilet paper slamming into you at 700 mph is going to mess you up just by the inertia and kinetic energy behind it.

 

A Cunning and Clever Plan by Ukraine That Exploited Moskva’s Weaknesses

The Ukrainians appeared to have been rather inventive in their tactics in employing these missiles which led to a successful strike.  Reportedly, they used three Bayraktar TB-2 drones operating over the Black Sea to get the attention of the Cruiser. Detecting these slow-speed targets that are not known to be armed with any weapon big enough to hurt the ship, the Moskva would have turned toward them to reduce its target profile anyway as a matter of routine.  This profile would also give Moskva’s air search and air defense radars a better look at the targets and bring her air defense weapons(designed to provide a 180-degree frontal defense) to bear on these targets as well just in case. They did not attempt to shoot the drones down.  There could be several reasons for this, including the desire to study their movements, or directing fire from another air defense battery closer to them, or not wanting to expend 3 expensive long-range surface-to-air missiles on relatively cheap drones.

From the shore in Odesa, Ukraine then launched two Neptune missiles from a mobile launcher in rapid succession directed at the broad portside of the Moskva from a distance of 40-60 miles. These were launched at night and in weather that was overcast and raining. The rain would have degraded the performance of the Moskva’s air and surface search radar reducing their range of detection of the inbound missiles which are flying only about 50 ft above the waves.  At 12 miles from the target, the two Neptunes would be skimming the waves at a height of just 3ft above the waves and their active radars would be looking to lock onto the Moskva’s signature. Moskva would respond to the detection with a hard turn into the missiles to bring herself bow on and would have dispensed chaff, radar jammers, and fired short-range surface-to-air missiles and then her close-in weapons systems cannons to try and shoot them down.  The reports that she was hit on the port side suggest she was late in detecting the missiles or reacting to them and had not completed her turn in when she was struck.  At a speed of 700 plus miles per hour for the Neptunes and a distance of 40-60 miles from the target, Moskva would have had between four and seven minutes to detect, track, target, and fire at the incoming missiles if they were immediately picked up at their launch point.

The timing of the attack estimated to be just after midnight coincides with the midnight watch change aboard the Russian ship. The operators at their screens would have gotten a briefing(presumably) from the crewman they were relieving and would just be getting a handle on what was going on in the air and seas around them.  It is also entirely possible that the midnight watchstanders are not the most experienced crewmen at the sensor stations at this late hour.

 

From left to right: NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Sergei Ivanov, Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation and Antonio Martino, Minister of Defence of Italy aboard the Cruiser Moskva in 2006. Photo: NATO

Finally, the Moskva is a very old ship, built-in Ukraine(ironic ain’t it) in 1979. She was due to have her weapons systems upgraded in 2015, but the Russians skipped it.  A limited upgrade to her hull and powerplants was done sometime between 2018 and 2020, but there are no reports of upgrades to her sensors, or weapons.

So what was the Moskva doing so close to shore in the first place?  Since she lacks land-attack missiles but has air search radar and long-range surface-to-air missiles, she was probably engaged in maintaining radar surveillance over the Black Sea to prevent Ukraine’s air force from routing its aircraft and even helicopters out over the Black Sea to attack Russian ground forces on the mainland.  As to why she was so close to the mainland, they probably wanted more air search radar coverage over southern Ukraine and figured the ship was safe from attack at night. The Neptune is fired from a mobile launch platform that Moskva’s radars could not have detected being moved to the coast and within range of her.

With all that said, a 600 ft long, 12,500-ton warship like the Moskva is still a pretty hard ship to sink with one or two missiles(a torpedo launched from a submarine is a different matter) The Neptune is said to be the most effective on vessels under 5,000 tons in displacement, which is enough to severely damage the Moskva, but not sink her in minutes, mostly because the missile hits the hull on a flat trajectory rather than plunging down from above and punching a hole in the bottom of the hull. I hole in the bottom of the ship is nearly impossible for damage control parties to deal with.

The Impact of the Moskva Being out of Action

From a propaganda standpoint, both Ukraine and Russia have their own interests in how they present this attack.  For Ukraine, this well-executed operation reveals a previously unknown competence in Ukraine’s employment of their weapons at sea. We suspect they had some help from NATO Naval Advisors in this in the form of intelligence and tactics.  We’ve studied the Russian navy, their ships, sensors, and weapons for a very long time  There would also be Ukrainians who would be very familiar with the ship’s systems as well.

Reports are that the ship is being towed back to port and has no power or electricity. The ship is holed once and maybe twice a few feet above the water line in bad weather and rough seas.  The water is so cold that damage control parties on board can’t work to control flooding without exposure suits to protect them from hypothermia.  She might sink on her way back to port if she keeps taking on water.

For Russia, this is a bit of a public relations disaster that they will vigorously work to downplay as an accident. The ship is literally named for Russia’s capital and the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, and being nearly sunk will injure Russian pride.  Russia also seems to have seriously misjudged Ukaine’s Neptune missile and its ability to employ it and Russia took chances with its use of this aging cruisier that a nation with a healthy respect for its adversary would not have taken.

Casualties among the 500 crewmen believed to be aboard are unknown at this time, but the ship was hit by a missile and caught fire. There may have been explosions of the ammunition aboard along with flooding. If the crew went overboard in rafts and boats, the water temperatures are in the fifties in the Black Sea.  All of these things will cause casualties among the crew, likely quite a few casualties.  The Russians will be loath to report them accurately if at all.

From a strategic standpoint, since Turkey closed the Bosporus to any warships entering or leaving, Russia will not be able to easily replace Moskva’s air and surface search radar capability and will have a difficult time monitoring these waters for air and surface ships near the coast. Russian naval assets will likely remain well offshore and out of the range of the Neptune and now Harpoon missiles from the UK. This will make supplying ground units trying to take Mariupol and later Odesa much harder.  This will also eliminate the risk of a Russian seaborne landing on the Southern coast of Ukraine in the near future.

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