What happened to Russia’s Most Powerful Warship, the Moskva?

On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian warships started making their presence felt in the Black Sea to portent the events that were to follow.

Ukrainian border guard Roman Hrybov famously remarked ‘Russian warship, go F*** yourself!‘. The warship sitting off the island was none other than Moskva, the most powerful warship in the Black Sea.

A Slava class cruiser, the Moskva was a behemoth armed to the teeth, making it an obvious contender as the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Once the island was taken, and Moskva settled in to a wartime routine.

The Slava Class

Originally built in Ukraine in the Soviet-era, the Moskva entered service in the early 1980s according to Russian media.

The missile cruiser was previously deployed by Moscow in the Syria conflict where it supplied Russian forces in the country with naval protection.

The 510-crew warship led Russia’s naval assault on Ukraine, making it an important symbolic and military target.

It carried over a dozen Vulkan anti-ship missiles and an array of anti-submarine and mine-torpedo weapons, the reports said.

The Russian Navy’s concept of a cruiser is different from carrier-centric U.S. Navy’s. Instead of escorting their own aircraft carrier, the Slavas are intended as primary attack vehicles.

They are therefore designed with missile-carrying capacity in mind, 16 supersonic anti-ship missiles to be precise. Originally the P-500 Bazalt type missiles were commissioned for the Slava class, but they now carry the more potent P-1000 Vulkan class.

The Vulkan missiles were largely for show in a mostly unhindered Russian presence in the Black Sea.

The Moskva however played a major defense role, which made her unique in the Russian fleet. She carried 64 S-300F Rif air defense missiles, which gave her dominance in the northern Black Sea region. Along with the famed S-400 missile systems based at Sevastopol and other units based in Crimea, gave Russia a significant advantage in the waters. Moskva, and virtually all Russian warships, periodically returned to their home port of Sevastopol on Crimea.

Snake Island, Home Base And Power Demonstration

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, Moskva was principally operating in the vicinity of Snake Island, a ways off from the strategic target of Odesa, Ukraine’s principle Black Sea port.

If Russia took control of Odesa would, Ukraine would be cut off from the water, almost landlocked. This would have been a significant advantage, as creating a land bridge to Transnistria, a Russian-backed unrecognized breakaway state in Moldova would further the Russian advance.

This did not happen as the Russian advance in Crimea was slow.

Russian warships began conducting intimidation missions close to Odesa in early March, led by the now infamous incident involving Hyrbov. Attacks on merchant ships followed, as the Russian navy sought to create a blockade.

The Moskva is said to have remained further offshore and not involved in any active combat.

As an older warship, Moskva did not have land attack cruise missiles. The Kalibr missile, similar to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk, came later.

As the war progressed the Russians began conducting larger-scale amphibious missions to intimidate the Ukrainians. The Moskva played a command role in these operations, as the ringleader that led from the shadows.

So what caused the Moskva sinking-a fire or a missile attack?

The warring sides may agree on the skirmishes on the borders, not what caused the sinking though.

The Russian defence ministry said ammunition onboard exploded in an unexplained fire.

Ukraine claims it struck the vessel with its recently-acquired Neptune missiles, with many in the global media and US defence insiders believing Ukraine’s version.

The 300 km-range cruise missile system was designed by Ukrainians in response to the growing, following the Crimea annexation, to counter Russia in the Black Sea.

It must be added that no one thus far has been able to verify any claims on either side.

Russia’s defence ministry had issued a statement saying ‘the vessel is seriously damaged. The entire crew have been evacuated,’ before the ship went down.

Naval officials first said that they were towing the warship back, a later statement the same day said that on its journey back to port, the ship ‘lost its balance.’

A fire was the official party line, with no remote references to any missile strike.

‘Given the choppy seas, the vessel sank,’ the statement read.

Pictures and videos surface of the Moskva ‘listing’

Dramatic pictures and a video surfaced online, appearing to show the Russian warship listing heavily, clouded under heavy smoke.

Military experts opined that the footage was most likely of the Moskva cruiser, recorded on 14 April probably.

The damage ‘was consistent with the type that a Neptune-style missile attack would inflict’ they said, lending credence to the Ukraine position.

Others however refuted the claims, saying the the footage could not definitively rule out another explanation not involving a missile strike.

Russia has not admitted any casualties, going so far as releasing footage of the crew ‘on parade’ in Sevastopol.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy said the officers and crew would ‘continue their service.’

moskva shipRussia's MoskvaRussian Defence Ministry