Xi’s delay of Siberia pipeline signals limits to his embrace
Russian Defence Ministry says its flagship sank after 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.
Russia’s Defence Ministry says its missile cruiser, Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, sank as it was towed back to port in stormy weather following an explosion and fire, Russian news agencies reported on Thursday.
Ukrainian officials said that their forces hit the Moskva with missiles overnight, with one official saying it sank. Russia had initially said the cruiser was badly damaged by a fire that forced the warship’s evacuation, but that it was still afloat.
The loss of the ship 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 of Kyiv.
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 the war’s early days. In audio widely circulated online, the soldier responds: “Russian warship, go f–k yourself.”
The AP could not independently verify that incident, but Ukraine and its supporters consider it an iconic moment of defiance, and the country recently unveiled a postage stamp commemorating it.
Russia did not acknowledge any attack on the Moskva but said a fire aboard the warship, which would typically have 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate the vessel. It later said the fire had been contained and that the ship would be towed to port with its guided missile launchers intact.
The ship carries 16 long-range cruise missiles, and its removal from combat would greatly reduce Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. Regardless of the extent of the damage, any attack would represent a major blow to Russian prestige seven weeks into a war that is already widely seen as a historic blunder.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the vastly different accounts, and cloud cover made it impossible to locate the ship or determine its condition based on satellite photos.
There was also some caution from Ukrainian officials: One official said the ship sank, and a video from its armed forces described it overturning and beginning to sink, but another refused to confirm that.
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 Wednesday that it said was from Mariupol showing 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’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.” In a video posted by Operation Command South of Ukraine’s military, an official said poor weather and explosions “overturned the cruiser and it began to sink.”
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister, later said he was unable to confirm that the ship sank or was even hit by Ukrainian forces. He said he was aware of the comments by other Ukrainian officials, but “could neither confirm nor deny” what happened.
“If or when this is confirmed, if it is confirmed, we can only have a sigh of relief, because this means that fewer missiles will reach Ukrainian cities,” he told The Associated Press.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the blaze. It later said the ship was afloat and would be taken in for repairs. It said its “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 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.
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. But the ground advance has stalled in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance, with the help of Western arms, and Russia has lost potentially thousands of fighters.
The conflict has killed untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions more to flee.
Hours after the warship attack was reported, Ukrainian authorities said on the Telegram messaging service that explosions had struck Odesa. They urged residents to remain calm and said there is no danger to civilians.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said in televised comments that Russia was massing troops not only along the Russia-Ukraine border, but also in Belarus and Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region.
Authorities in Transnistria, which borders southern Ukraine, have previously denied Russia was preparing forces there to deploy in Ukraine.
The Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions in the country’s east were being hit by missile strikes, Malyar said. Kharkiv’s governor said four civilians had been killed by shelling, though the report could not be independently verified.
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.