Damaged Russian warship sinks following explosion and fire
- Ukrainian officials claim missile strike on Russian warship, which Russia says has now sunk.
- Russian troops regrouping for renewed offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
- Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions being hit by missile strikes, deputy defence minister says.
The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a guided-missile cruiser that became a potent target of Ukrainian defiance in the opening days of the war, sank on Thursday after it was heavily damaged in the latest setback for Moscow’s invasion.
Ukrainian officials said their forces hit the vessel with missiles, while Russia acknowledged a fire aboard the Moskva but no attack. U.S. and other Western officials could not confirm what caused the blaze.
The loss of the warship named for the Russian capital would be a major military and symbolic defeat for Russia, as its troops regroup for a renewed offensive in Eastern Ukraine after retreating from much of the north, including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the ship sank in a storm while being towed to a port. Russia earlier said the flames on the ship, which would typically have 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate. It later said the fire had been contained and that the ship would be towed to port with its missile launchers intact.
The ship had the capacity to carry 16 long-range cruise missiles, and its removal from combat would greatly reduce Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. Loss of the ship would represent a major blow to Russian prestige in a war that is already widely seen as a historic blunder.
Now entering its eighth week, Russia’s invasion has stalled because of resistance from Ukrainian fighters, bolstered by weapons and other aid sent by Western nations.
During the first days of the war, the Moskva was reportedly the warship that called on Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea to surrender in a standoff. In a widely circulated recording, a soldier responded: “Russian warship, go f–k yourself.”
The Associated Press could not independently verify the incident, but Ukraine and its supporters consider it an iconic moment of defiance. The country recently unveiled a postage stamp commemorating it.
Conflicting reports from Mariupol
News of the ship’s damage also overshadowed Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol, where they have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the heaviest fighting of the war — at a horrific cost to civilians.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade surrendered at a metals factory in the city. But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, rejected the claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle over the seaport is still ongoing today.”
It was unclear when or over what time period a surrender may have occurred or how many forces were still defending Mariupol.
Russian state television broadcast footage on Wednesday that it said was from Mariupol showed dozens of men in camouflage walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers or in chair holds. One man held a white flag.
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering. Dwindling numbers of Ukrainian defenders are holding out against a Russian siege that has trapped well over 100,000 civilians in desperate need of food, water and heating.
The mayor said on Monday that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the siege and that the death toll could surpass 20,000. Weeks of attacks and privation left bodies “carpeted through the streets,” he said.
Mariupol’s capture is critical for Russia, because it would put a swath of territory in its control that would allow its forces in the south, who came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to link up with troops in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland and the target of the coming offensive.
The Russian military continues to move helicopters and other equipment together for such an effort, according to a senior U.S. defence official, and it will likely add more ground combat units “over coming days.” But it’s still unclear when Russia could launch a bigger offensive in the Donbas.
Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukraine in the Donbas since 2014, the same year Russia seized Crimea. Russia has recognized the independence of the rebel regions in the Donbas, though the move has been met with widespread condemnation from the West.
‘Serious damage’ to ship
But the loss of the Moskva could delay any new, wide-ranging offensive.
Maksym Marchenko, governor of the Odesa region, which sits across the Black Sea to the northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians struck the guided-missile cruiser with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.”
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, then said the ship sank, calling it an event of “colossal significance.”
Russia’s Defence Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the fire. It said the “main missile weapons” were not damaged. In addition to the cruise missiles, the warship also had air-defence missiles and other guns.
The Neptune is an anti-ship missile that was recently developed by Ukraine and is based on an earlier Soviet design. The launchers are mounted on trucks stationed near the coast, and according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the missiles can hit targets up to 280 kilometres away. That would have put the Moskva within range, based on where the fire began.
The U.S. was not able to confirm Ukraine’s claims of striking the warship, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday. Still, he called it “a big blow to Russia.”
“They’ve had to kind of choose between two stories: One story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they came under attack, and neither is a [particularly] good outcome for them,” Sullivan told the Economic Club of Washington.
War enters 8th week
Russia invaded on Feb. 24 with the goal of rapidly seizing Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly replacement, according to Western officials. The conflict has killed untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions more to flee.
Also Thursday, Russian authorities accused Ukraine of sending two low-flying military helicopters across the border and firing on residential buildings in the village of Klimovo in Russia’s Bryansk region, some 11 kilometres from the frontier. Russia’s Investigative Committee said seven people, including a toddler, were wounded.
Russia’s state security service had earlier said Ukrainian forces fired mortar rounds at a border post in Bryansk as refugees were crossing, forcing them to flee.
The reports could not be independently verified. Earlier this month, Ukrainian security officials denied that Kyiv was behind an airstrike on an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, some 55 kilometres from the border.