Russia’s Black Sea flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva, sunk while being towed to port after an explosion caused by an unexplained fire, the Russian defence ministry has said, after Ukraine said it had hit the ship with a missile or missiles.
Although Russia did not confirm that Ukrainian missiles had hit the ship, early on Friday it struck what it described as a factory in Kyiv that made and repaired anti-ship missiles, in apparent retaliation.
Ukraine said it had struck the Moskva with Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles while distracting its crew with an aerial drone, causing it to start sinking and forcing the crew of 500 to abandon ship.
Russia’s defence ministry initially denied reports that it had sunk and claimed the fires had been extinguished. It said four Russian ships that had gone to the Moskva’s rescue were hampered by bad weather and by ammunition blowing up on board.
Late on Thursday the ministry said in a statement: “The cruiser ship Moskva lost its stability when it was towed to the port because of the damage to the ship’s hull that it received during the fire from the detonation of ammunition. In stormy sea conditions, the ship sank.”
The claim of bad weather being a factor in the sinking was questioned by observers. Mark Hertling, the former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, told CNN: “As they were towing that ship in, that very wounded ship, into Sevastopol, they claim a storm sank it. Looking at the weather report outside of Sevastopol today the winds were about four miles an hour with 40 degree [4C] temperatures and a little bit of rain.”
The apparent attack on and sinking of the Black Sea fleet’s flagship – 50 days after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine – represents a symbolic blow to the Kremlin. The Moskva was the pride of its fleet and the most prestigious vessel involved in the war against Ukraine.
“The sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, is not just a significant loss, it is emblematic of the shambolic Russian military campaign,” said Michael Kofman, research programme director and Russia expert at the US government-funded Center for Naval Analyses.
Confirmation of the sinking came as the CIA’s director, William Burns, warned that Vladimir Putin may resort to using a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon in light of his country’s military setbacks.
During a speech in Atlanta, Burns said: “Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership … none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.”
The Kremlin placed Russian nuclear forces on high alert shortly after beginning the war on 24 February, and furthered its nuclear rhetoric on Thursday when it said it would be forced to strengthen its defences in the Baltic if Finland and Sweden join Nato, including by deploying nuclear weapons.
Burns, however, said the US had not seen “a lot of practical evidence” of actual deployments that would cause more worry.
Kyiv was hit on Friday by some of the most powerful explosions heard since Russian forces withdrew from the area two weeks ago. Moscow said it had struck a plant that made and repaired Ukrainian missiles, including anti-ship missiles.
“The number and scale of missile strikes on targets in Kyiv will increase in response to any terrorist attacks or acts of sabotage on Russian territory committed by the Kyiv nationalist regime,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s defence ministry also said it had captured the Ilyich steel works in Mariupol, the besieged eastern port that has seen the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe. The report could not be confirmed. Ukrainian defenders are mainly believed to be holding out in Azovstal, another huge steel works.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has delivered an address to mark the 50th day of war, calling Russia’s invasion “absurd” and “suicidal” and saying Ukraine had become a “hero for the whole free world”.
In signs of the financial pressures being placed on Russia by the sanctions regime, which has led to rating agency Moody’s saying that Russia “may be considered in default” if it fails to pay bonds in US dollars by 4 May, Moscow has written to Brazil asking for its support in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the G20 group of top economies.
The sinking of the Moskva dealt a blow to one of Russia’s main campaign objectives. Commissioned in 1983, it was armed with 16 anti-ship Vulkan cruise missiles with a range of at least 440 miles (700km). According to reports, it was also carrying S-300 anti-air missiles, which are crucial to Russia’s air power over Crimea and Ukraine’s Kherson province, now occupied by Russian troops.
It is the most significant naval vessel to be sunk since the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed by a British submarine, HMS Conqueror, in 1982.
Maksym Marchenko, the Ukrainian governor of the region around Odesa, said the Moskva had been hit by two cruise missiles. “Neptune missiles guarding the Black Sea caused very serious damage,” he said.
Oleksandr Turchynov, a former secretary of the national security and defence council, said Ukraine had hit another Russian ship two weeks ago with a Neptune cruise missile. He said the missile inflicted “significant damage” on the Admiral Essen, “removing it from combat operation”.
Western officials described the Ukrainian claims to have hit the Moskva with anti-ship missiles as “credible”. A senior US defence official noted that five other Russian vessels that had been as close as or closer to the Ukrainian coast than the Moskva had moved at least another 20 nautical miles offshore after the explosion, suggesting an effort to get out of range of Ukrainian missiles.
“In the wake of the damage that the Moskva experienced, all of the northern Black Sea ships have now moved out, away from the northern areas they were operating in,” the defence official said.
The Moskva gained notoriety early in the war when the crew demanded the surrender of Ukrainian forces on Snake Island, prompting a riposte by radio from one of the border guards on the island: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
The phrase instantly became synonymous with Ukrainian defiance, and is now a universal meme. The day before the Moskva was sunk, Zelenskiy unveiled a new postage stamp portraying the ship and the Ukrainian border guard with his middle finger raised.