At the time of writing there is still only one confirmed outcome in the story of the sinking of the Russian navy Project 1164 Slava-class cruiser Moskva – that the near 40-year-old flagship of the Black Sea Fleet sank on 14th April 2022.
And it is a story. There are so many different accounts of what may have happened it has become fictional in places.
What is known, apart from the actual sinking, is that Moskva suffered a severe fire that – according to the Russian MoD – led to the crew abandoning ship.
To counter this story, the Ukrainian forces declared they had attacked the ship with Anti-ship missiles (AShM). The type of missile was never stated but analysts presume RK-360MC Neptune coastal defence AShM’s.
There is still little confirmation on the 500+ crew condition or their whereabouts. Initially, the Russian MoD state that all survived, whilst other reports said this number was between 54 to 60, having been rescued by Turkish ships in the area. Then a few names of the killed were released – including the captain, Anton Kuprin.
The first question is, what were Turkish ships doing so far north in the Black Sea? More so in an area that has already seen civilian ships damaged and sunk. More than likely, this is untrue. One self-proclaimed Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) “expert” produced imagery on Twitter taken from online AIS that showed ships rescuing Moskva crew members. One of the ships shown was Turkish. However, the AIS data was from an area 145 nautical miles south of the incident. To date, no confirmation from any official Turkish sources of a rescue of Russian navy sailors. Nor are there any photos or videos of this on social media – something extremely rare in the current climate.
The same OSINT “expert” also produced radio intercepts on High Frequency (HF) bands of morse code distress and SOS messages from Mosvka – including ones that stated the ship was sinking. This again was incorrect and were very quickly proven to be amateur radio operators. The morse code procedures didn’t even match those normally used by the Russian navy.
Finally, with images emerging of Moskva after the rescue and fire-fighting attempts were started, Russian rescue ships are present and that most of the life rafts appear to have been deployed. This suggests that most of the crew did survive.
A video released by the Russian MoD showed a parade in Sevastopol on 17 April which was reportedly some of the crew. The parade included the Captain, previously reported killed!
This has caused doubt in what happened – or in the story released by the Russian MoD. Firstly, the Captain is there – secondly, none of the crew appear injured, though it could be that they only selected those that were uninjured as less than half the crew are present. Thirdly, part of the video, the crew appear to be laughing and joking, which is not what one would expect in a parade such as this. Was this video from before the incident?
The source of the fire has also been heavily discussed on social media. A fire onboard – as stated by the Russian MoD – is feasible. After all, the Russian navy has a terrible record for this. Just a few weeks before, Project 1171 Alligator-class LSTM Saratov sank at Berdyansk port following an explosion on 24 March 2022. This was caused by an accident whilst loading two Project 775 Ropucha-class LSTMs with ammunition. The two Ropuchas sustained enough damage that they had to return to Sevastopol for repairs.
Other fires have occurred in the last 10 years on Russian ships. In 2012 Soobrazitelny, in 2015 Steregushchiy – both Steregushchiy I class frigates – and Admiral Gorshkov also in 2015 during the first of class sea trials.
It is the story of a Ukrainian missile strike that appears to be the most believed theory. Yet, there is still no official proof of such an attack. The belief is it must be true as the Ukrainians reported the fire before the Russians did. But there could be more to this than meets the eye.
It is presumed by many that the Ukrainian forces are receiving live intelligence from other countries. Proof that Moskva was being followed by the US was produced when the Pentagons Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed the damage to Moskva.
“We’re not in a position to officially confirm, independently, what exactly led to the ship’s now sinking, but we’re also not in any position to refute the Ukrainian side of this. It’s certainly plausible and possible that they did in fact hit this with a Neptune missile or maybe more.”
He also said the Moskva was operating roughly 60 miles south of Odessa at the time of the blast. “We know she suffered an explosion. It looks like — from the images that we have been able to look at — it looks like it was a pretty sizable explosion, too. We don’t know what caused that explosion.”
With this in mind, it is plausible that US Intelligence was sharing information on Moskva, including the fact that the ship was on fire. With this information, in theory the Ukrainian forces could have produced a statement saying they had attacked the ship with AShMs. The Russian MoD were then forced to provide their own statement regarding a fire.
What then further confused the story, was that the US then stated a few days later that the ship was struck by two Neptune AShMs. Why not say so in the first place?
If a missile strike did occur, then what happened regarding the Moskva anti-missile defences? Again, many stories have become presumed truth – old ship, old equipment, old radars.
One thing is for sure. The ships fire protection system was old and inadequate for the task. It was supposed to have been upgraded during Moskvas modernisation programme between 2018 and 2021 – but was decided against doing so for cost savings. Even a small fire could have quickly gotten out of control. One involving ammunition even quicker.
Bad weather was also given as a reason for missiles to have made it through the defences – choppy sea causing interference returns on the defence radars.
Distraction from a Ukrainian Baykar Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) whilst the missiles sneaked in from another angle was also a possible cause muted – this theory likely stemming, ironically, from a video produced by the Russian MoD a few days earlier showing a Project 11356M Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Essen shooting down a Ukrainian TB2 with its Shtil-1 air defence system. This video, however, does appear to be made up of several events from a test firing and fake.
Whilst the opinion is – if missiles were involved – that they broke through the Moskva defences this may not be correct either. Moskva was armed with six AK-630M CIWS capable of firing up to 5,000 30mm rounds per minute, designed specifically as a last resort defence against low flying missiles.
However, all CIWS systems have a drawback in that if they destroy the incoming threat too close to the ship, the debris will continue – due to the momentum of travelling at Mach 1.5+ – and cause severe damage to the ship. The resulting debris easily penetrates the hull in small pieces and causes fires and injury to crew members.
An example of this took place in February 1983 when US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Antrim destroyed a target drone with its Phalanx CIWS during an exercise. The debris bounced off the sea surface, hitting the ship and caused significant damage. The fuel from the drone also ignited which set the frigate alight. A civilian instructor onboard was killed.
Here then, is another option as to why the Moskva was on fire. A similar scenario could have taken place, and with two reported missiles involved would have been far worse than the Antrim incident.
The imagery of Moskva on fire clearly shows the worst damage near the location of the AK-630Ms. Is this what happened then with debris striking the ship in that area?
Ironically, this area of the ship contains one of the most vital stations for the survival of the ship – damage control. It is also the area where propulsion and electrical systems etc. are monitored. These being destroyed would almost certainly lead to the demise of the ship.
There is also an ethos amongst the Russian navy during exercises that could have been the cause for missiles to break the defence. Whilst NATO and western exercises are an “all sides could win” affair, the Russian navy always leans to the main player winning – regardless. So, in the case of Moskva, during a simulated missile attack the crew would know at what time and what direction the threat would be coming from to ensure a success. In other words, it was fixed to confirm the system and crew works efficiently. This doesn’t help much in a real-world situation, and the Moskva radar defence crew could have been overwhelmed and confused by the fact that what they were facing hadn’t been notified to them in advance.
There is one fly in the ointment to the missile attack that doesn’t seem to fit in with how the war in Ukraine is being portrayed – and that is the total lack of any pictorial evidence of the missile attack. The “Russian warship, go f**k yourself” incident – ironically the warship being Moskva – was filmed with the event, though somewhat enhanced by social media and the Ukrainian forces, making it to every corner of the world. A Ukrainian commemorative postage stamp of the incident was even created just a few days before Moskva sank.
There are hundreds of videos of Russian tanks getting destroyed by missiles and drones – and yet the Ukrainians have not produced any such evidence of what was their biggest target to date being fired upon.
Even a successful attack on a Project 03160 Raptor small patrol boat was filmed, so with the history of the previous Moskva incident still fresh, it was a huge propaganda moment, and it seems strange that no-one thought to point a camera or mobile phone at the TEL launching the missiles.
Moreover, the Ukrainians have a history of claiming they fired upon Russian ships and hitting them – Vasily Bykov, Saratov and Admiral Essen – which turned out to be fake. Combined with a lack of evidence this doesn’t help with the story of Moskva.
There is clearly smoke and fire damage taking place internally from open portholes along the side of the ship pointing to an internal fire. There is a possibility there are two holes on the hull caused by missile strikes – one at the stern under the hanger (though this is extremely round rather than jagged) and the other with the damage near the AK-630Ms. These could easily have been caused by explosions internally though. The hull skin doesn’t appear to buckle in as one would expect.
It does appear that the defence radar systems were not in operational use at the time of the incident. Granted this could have been due to a surprise attack – but it doesn’t match with the TB2 distraction story.
Overall, it is still inconclusive as to what happened. To me, the damage doesn’t concur with a missile strike, though it is substantial. Compared with damage to HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry during the Falklands, holes from the missiles are clearly visible. However, whilst the initial damage from the outside didn’t look that bad – they were devastating in nature internally, leading to many deaths and injuries and finally the sinking of the ships.
As to the effect the loss has on the Russian navy, and particularly the Black Sea fleet – it is doubtful it will be noticed much. There are plenty of smaller, modern, ships in the fleet available that have modern systems and weapons. Moskva was due to serve for about five more years and replacements were already planned.
It is, however, an embarrassment to the Russian navy and for the Kremlin, that the flagship of the Black Sea fleet has been destroyed – regardless of how it happened.