Russia in the Black Sea: What Happened to the Moskva?
04 Jul, 2022 · 5822
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) examines the narratives offered to explain the ship’s sinking, in the broader context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Vice Admiral Vijay ShankarDistinguished Fellow
The flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the ‘Slava’ class missile cruiser, Moskva, sank at on 14 April 2022 in position 45°10′43.39″N 30°55′30.54″E, after being "damaged." That is as far as one can establish from reportage thus far. The circumstances of the episode remain mired in fact-distorting partisan narratives.
Kremlin said ammunition on board blew-up in a catastrophic fire and the Moskva later capsized under tow to Sevastopol. Ukraine claims it struck the vessel with a salvo of two “Neptune” surface-to-surface missiles while NATO sources have put out a version to credit sinking to targeting intelligence passed on to Ukraine, which has been denied by the Pentagon.
If indeed the Russian variant of events is to be believed then it speaks of either the appalling material state of on-board damage control systems or of dismal crew competence. Warships are put to sea only if both human and machine are hazard-free—notwithstanding the ship’s ‘maturity’. Besides, what was the Moskva doing within missile range, unprotected? If the Ukrainian recital is to be accepted, then why were follow-on salvos not launched? After all, the fire control solution was available, escorts were in the vicinity, and target had been ‘crippled’. As far as NATO targeting data is concerned, this would have had to have been persistent using an interoperable data link. The question that begs to be asked: Why were more Russian warships not targeted?
The operational situation in the Black Sea during the months preceding the sinking was marked by three significant factors. First, Russian Fleet modernisation followed the annexation of Crimea and appropriation of the naval base at Sevastopol. Warships and infrastructure that had seen neglect for three decades were rejuvenated. By 2019, the resurgence of the fleet was apparent when the force capability was designated to meet tasks of “maritime dominance in the Black Sea, Control and “counter-naval” operations.”
Ukraine, anticipating the conflict, laid defensive minefields in the approaches to their ports of Odessa, Ochakov, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny with vintage moored mines. Its flotilla was deployed on local naval defence tasks. Stormy conditions reportedly set some of the mines adrift, which freewheeled to the south and western parts of the Black Sea. By end-March, however, Ukrainian surface forces, coastal defence, and naval aviation had been all but decimated, major ports blockaded, and Russia had established partial sea control in the Northern Black Sea.
Second, Turkey imposed Article 19 of the Montreux Convention that prohibits belligerent warships from transit through the straits. Russia could militarily defy the Convention, putting Turkey in a ticklish strategic situation, as both Ukraine and Russia are important partners.
Third, the challenge of an enlarging NATO and the consequent shrinkage in Russian influence has been a source of chagrin to the Kremlin as it brings the ‘line-of-discord’ to its doorstep. The current standoff between Russia and NATO has been vitiated by the narrative of the latter’s betrayal in not upholding promises made in 1990. And yet, the conflict, coming in the wake of Chechnya, Armenia, and Georgia, underscores Moscow’s perception of pre-eminence.
To stitch together an account based on available media reports is in part contrary, and at others, partisan. But the fact remains that the Moskva sank. An attempt is now made to fathom the incident based on derivations.
The Moskva went under 80 nautical miles South of Odessa. Soundings in the area are between 50 to 100 metres. Being the fleet’s flagship, the Moskva can be assumed to be designated commander of the Russian blockading force deployed north of the line joining Sevastopol and the captured Zmiiniy (Snake) Island.
The Moskva was operating within 50 nm off the Ukrainian coast. This would suggest that the Russian Command had either ruled out the threat to the blockading force from Ukrainian cruise missiles (Neptune range: 150 nm) or had complete confidence in their ability to suppress enemy surveillance and control systems. It would appear the Russian forces did not, for some reason, even consider the possibility of targeting data coming from any other source. It is equally curious that media reports continue to suggest US involvement in targeting despite Pentagon’s denial.
So, did the Moskva sink due to a targeted cruise missile strike? Was damage sustained in a mine hit? Or did it self-destruct? All three possibilities would appear plausible.
A Reading of the Situation
Cruise missiles such as the Neptune are derivatives of the Russian Zvezda Kh-35 or what is in service in the Indian Navy, the ‘Uran’ system. The missile cruises at sub-sonic speeds, but after lock-on, it may manoeuvre or boost speed. Tolerance for un-factored target movement is limited; therefore, the requirement for continuous target data.
Commercial satellites systems may be used for the initial search, however for tracking and targeting high-end precision systems would have to be paired. Ukraine operates the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAV, which theoretically allows for targeting linkage via in-area NATO maritime patrol aircraft. However, to exploit the situation in such direct manner and risk a hot faceoff with Russia is the moot question. Besides, the Kremlin not having shown any reaction to the possibility of direct NATO involvement questions the validity of the proposition. Could the Moskva have challenged such a cooperative encounter? It certainly had the wherewithal. Yet, it didn’t. The question arises, why not? There is the possibility of tacit agreement between Russia and the US of the limits of involvement.
Maritime savvy dictates that in potentially hostile waters the most valuable warship be protected. If the Moskva was the blockade commander or indeed deployed to provide command and control, air-defence, and anti-surface protection to the force, then it would have had a defensive screen. Under these conditions it is not at all clear as to how the ship was attacked and why there was no response—unless the engagement was clandestinely orchestrated by NATO, or the hapless ship ran into a mine, or succumbed to a catastrophic accident.
Pope Francis’ macro-perspective of the conflict bears an irresistible logic that may provide insight into the fate of the Moskva. He said, “We do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps, somehow either provoked or not prevented.”
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) is former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India and Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.
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