The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that the Russian warship Moskva has sunk in the Black Sea following a disputed anti-ship missile strike against the Russian Black Sea Flotilla’s leading flagship. This was preceded by the Russian Defense Ministry claiming that the ship had suffered a violent explosion of its ammunition cache resulting from a fire on board. As it turns out, the Kremlin’s claim was less than honest. We can now be more or less certain that Ukraine has added another mark to its small but no less impressive list of naval kills. The fire which caused the ammunition explosion was a direct result of a missile strike. This is an event of enormous significance, and one of many milestones. The Moskva is likely the largest ship by tonnage sunk in wartime since the end of WWII. Moreover, it is the first large combat ship sunk by Ukraine since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The Telegraph is reporting that “hundreds” of Russian sailors were dragged to the bottom of the sea by the burning hulk of their once proud warship, producing the “worst single Russian military casualty event since the Second World War”. Preliminary reports from Ukraine suggested that the Moskva had survived the initial blast and was being towed back to its base in Sevastopol. It was then lost in heavy seas whilst being towed.
The Moskva was the ship notorious for its involvement in the bombardment of the Snake Island garrison at the beginning of the war. It gave an ultimatum to the couple dozen border guards stationed on the island to lay down their weapons and surrender. Accordingly, a major implication of this sinking is propagandistic in nature. This will undoubtedly bolster the Ukrainian morale, particularly in Odesa, a city under constant threat of amphibious assault by Russian marines. It is almost poetic justice. The warship which opened the war by rocketing a much weaker opponent was then rocketed by a far more advanced anti-ship missile system than it could defend against. According to the Ukrainian sources, the ship’s air defenses were “distracted” by a TB-2 Bayraktar UAV drone which loitered above the Moskva until the missiles could reach their intended target. The Moskva is the pride of the Black Sea Flotilla. For it to be sunk by a sleight of hand trick is immensely embarrassing for the Russian navy. What's more, the Ukrainians sunk the Moskva using an RK-360MC Neptun ASM. This missile was indigenously produced by Ukraine’s defense industry, proving that Ukraine’s military-industrial capabilties are on par with many western military powers. This same anti-ship missile was allegedly used on April 4 to heavily damage the Russian frigate Admiral Essen, according to a former Ukrainian defense official, Oleksandr Turchynov. He is quoted by The Guardian as saying that Admiral Essen was so severely damaged that it was removed “from combat operation”.
The attack itself carries a number of implications for Ukraine more broadly than a simple propaganda victory. It demonstrates the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces to conduct complex military operations with domestically built, sophisticated weapons systems. It has been widely acknowledged in the past that Ukraine’s defense industry was among the world’s best and most experienced. There are allegations that Ukraine and Russia essentially gave North Korea a large number of Neptune missiles before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. According to Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington DC based think tank, North Korea probably obtained these units from Myanmar. Moreover, the missiles themselves were Kh-35s, an older, less effective Soviet-made variant. Irrespective of where North Korea obtained the weapons, their desirability speaks to the effectiveness and lethality of the design. Ukraine’s version of the missile is markedly improved and considered to be far more advanced. This implies that Ukraine has not only outclassed Russia in various categories of weapons technology but has also protected its military infrastructure to a sufficient enough degree, such that it was able to carry out the attack on Moskva. Beyond these implications of propaganda and military proficiency, there are very real and painful ramifications for how Russia will have to conduct its war efforts.
The southern front of the war is purely an extension of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s war aims are simple. They seek to carve out a territorial arc from the separatist republics that border Russia proper, to the Russian backed separatist republic of Transnistria. In doing so, Crimea will be geographically linked to the Russian heartland, no longer relying on the large bridge which spans the length of the Straights of Kerch. The same holds true for Transnistria. In order to do so, the Russian military needs to first take Mariupol, and then Odesa. Mariupol will fall to the Russian army in the next few days. There have been reports from both Russian and western media sources that “mass surrenders” have taken place in the last few days. Those reports are unconfirmed. Nonetheless, the final holdouts will almost certainly fight to the bitter end. Yet this was always an assumed reality. The fall of Mariupol was a given prospect the moment it was put under siege. Odesa was always the crown jewel in Russia’s objectives. The city has been extensively fortified in expectation of a Russian amphibious assault, with mines dotting its beaches. Taking Odesa was going to be an extensive and bloody military operation, with no real guarantee of success. Now, with Ukraine’s anti-ship missile capabilities on full display, any Russian warship or landing craft within 250km of the shoreline is exposed to enormous risk. Russian naval assets have begun to withdraw further into deep waters to avoid this risk. The naval invasion of Odesa may never take place now that Ukraine can seriously threaten any Russian ship within targeting range. So long as the salient along the Dnieper holds, Russian troops will likely never manage to encircle the city and complete their plan for dominance of the Black Sea’s northern rim.
Now that the Russians have been repelled from Kiev, if the advance on Ukraine’s southern front comes to a halt, this will spell the end of Russia’s prospects for victory. As it so happens, the war has shifted more to the eastern separatist republics in recent weeks. The war may contract from a prolonged ground war in all of Ukraine’s territory to a localized conflict in Donbas. This will essentially return the war to its prior state of existence from 2014 to 2021. This perhaps may work in Putin’s favor. The war is going very badly for the Kremlin, and this may be a road out, a return to the status quo. Yet try as he might, Vladimir Putin cannot simply press control Z and return to a less violent and less complicated time. Mariupol is destroyed, Bucha is in ruins and Moskva is laid out in a broken tangle of metal on the silted dark floor of the Black Sea. It is difficult to say one way or another if the Moskva’s demise will bring about any of the above-mentioned ramifications, but on the balance of probabilities, we can be relatively certain of the fact that Russian military superiority is no longer an assumption we can take for granted.
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