Russian Cruiser Sinks, Ukraine Claims Victory in Potentially Greatest Naval Battle in Decades

Russia has confirmed the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet has sunk after what Ukraine said was a missile attack by their forces. If the facts are as claimed, the sinking is the most significant warship loss in decades, and possibly since the Second World War.

Russian state media has confirmed the guided-missile cruiser and erstwhile flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva (Moscow) sunk on Thursday.

The total loss of the ship comes after what Ukrainian state media claimed was a strike on the ship by two of their domestically produced  “Neptune” (Нептун) missiles on Wednesday. The Ukrainians said they’d caused major damage to the warship.

That the Moskva had been damaged was later confirmed by the Russian state, but their defence ministry said only that the guided-missile cruiser had suffered ammunition detonations onboard due to a fire.

While the Russian report following the Ukrainian confirmed that something had indeed happened to the warship, it stopped short at saying exactly why, only promising later in the day that an investigation would take place. Apparently trying to assert that the damage was not major, the Russian state claimed later on Thursday the fires had been extinguished, the ship’s primary armament was still functional, and it was to be towed back to port.

The Russian missile cruiser Moskva patrols in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria, on December 17, 2015. MAX DELANY/AFP via Getty Images

Whether these claims were wildly optimistic or simply outright fabrications will be determined at a later date, but it is now clear that the operation to recover whatever remained of the Moskva after its explosion and fire completely failed. Russian state news agency TASS said Thursday night: “The missile cruiser “Moskva” sank while being towed to its destination in a storm due to damage to the hull received due to a fire from the detonation of ammunition.”

Should Ukraine’s claim to have been the author of the sinking be true, however, the loss of the Movska to their shore missile batteries represents the greatest combat loss of a warship in decades, and quite possibly since the Second World War. The Pentagon hasn’t confirmed whether the strike was by Ukraine, but a Pentagon spokesman said “It’s certainly plausible and possible”, the BBC reported.

Several warships — often smaller corvette and missile boat types — were lost in combat in the 1980s, in conflicts including the Iran-Iraq war, the United States’ actions against Gaddafi’s Libya, and the Falklands War. Several larger warships were sunk in the Falklands War of 1982, however, including Britain’s loss of two destroyers and two frigates, and Argentina’s loss of a submarine and the 1930s-era light cruiser the General Belgrano.

The sinking of the Moskva is certainly the first loss in action of a major warship since the Falklands War, however whether the loss of a fleet flagship guided-missile cruiser — essentially a capital ship and of immense value — is actually the first of its kind since the Second World War.

There have been other attempts to take down large surface warships, among them one of the most notorious is the al-Qaeda suicide attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in Aden in 2000. An explosive charge brought alongside the ship in a small boat tore an enormous, 60-foot wide hole in the side of the Cole which caused considerable flooding onboard.

The ship was saved, however, after the crew worked to control the flood and prevent the Cole from rolling over. It may yet be seen whether crew training and competency, which contributed to the Cole being saved, contributed to the Russian failure to save the Moskva.

April 14th appears to be an inauspicious date for shipping. Exactly 110 years before the Moskva sank, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic ocean on April 14th 1912, sinking in the early hours of the next day, the deadliest peacetime sinking of a passenger ship ever.

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