Russian sailors have evacuated the guided missile cruiser Moscow, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, after a fire detonated ammunition on board, Russian state media reported on Wednesday.
The state media TASS and RIA, quoting the Russian Ministry of Defense, said that Moscow had been seriously damaged in the incident and that the cause of the fire was being investigated. The Russian reports provided no information on possible victims.
But hours earlier, a Ukrainian official claimed that the Russian warship had been hit by cruise missiles fired from Ukraine.
Due to large storms over the Black Sea that hide satellite images and sensory satellite data, CNN has not been able to visually confirm that the ship has been hit or its current status, but analysts noted that a fire on board such a ship could lead to a catastrophic explosion that could lower it.
Whatever the cause of the fire, analysts say it hits hard in the heart of the Russian Navy as well as national pride, which is comparable to the U.S. Navy losing a battleship during World War II or an aircraft carrier today.
“Only the loss of a ballistic missile submarine or Kutznetsov (Russia’s lone aircraft carrier) would inflict a more serious blow on Russian morale and the reputation of the Russian public,” said Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. naval captain and former director of US Pacific Command operations. Joint Intelligence Center.
Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College London, said losing the warship would be a “massive blow” to Russia.
“Ships operate away from public attention, and their activities are seldom the subject of news. But they are large floating pieces of national territory, and when you lose one, a flagship no less, the political and symbolic message – in addition to military losses – separates out just because of that, “he said.
The 611-foot-long (186-meter) Moscow, with a crew of nearly 500, is the pride of the Russian navy in the Black Sea. Originally deployed in the Soviet Navy as Slava in the 1980s, it was renamed Moscow in 1995 and after a rebuild reintroduced into service in 1998, according to the military site Naval-Technology.com.
Moscow is armed with a range of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as torpedoes and naval cannons and dense missile defense systems.
All of these represent huge amounts of explosive ammunition in its ammunition magazines. Any fire approaching them would have given the crew limited opportunities to deal with the threat, Schuster said.
“When a fire reaches your ammunition depots, you have two choices: 1) flood them or 2) leave the ship,” Schuster said. “Otherwise, your crew is on board to be wiped out by the catastrophic explosion that follows a fire that reaches hundreds of tons of ammunition.”
The regional administrator of Odesa, Maxim Marchenko, claimed in a post on Telegram that Ukrainian forces had used Neptune cruise missiles to attack Moscow. If true, Moscow would potentially be the largest warship ever taken out of action by a missile, Schuster said.
Such an achievement would represent a major advance for Kiev’s forces.
Neptune is a Ukrainian weapon, developed domestically based on the Soviet KH-35 cruise missile. It became operational in the Ukrainian forces just last year, according to Ukrainian media.
If used to attack Moscow, it would be the first known use of Neptune during the war, according to a post on the website of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) from Lt. Cmdr. Jason Lancaster, a U.S. Navy surface war officer.
His post for CIMSEC on Tuesday said the threat from mobile land-based cruise missiles like Neptune “changes operational behavior” for an enemy.
Russian “ships will operate in ways to minimize the risk of detection and maximize their chances of defending themselves,” Lancaster wrote. “These behavioral changes limit Russia’s ability to utilize its fleet to their advantage. The extra stress of sudden fighting increases fatigue and can lead to failure.”
According to Patalano, the war professor: “It seems the Russians have learned it the hard way today.”
In the CIMSEC record, Lancaster notes that the British Royal Navy lost several ships to missiles fired by Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.
During this war, a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, a former ship of the US Navy from World War II that is similar in size to Moscow.
Moscow is also of symbolic importance to Ukraine, as it was one of the ships involved in the famous Snake Island exchange in February, according to Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
A Ukrainian soldier replied, “Russian warship, take yourself.”
If Moscow is lost, it would be the second major Russian naval vessel to suffer that fate during Moscow’s war with Ukraine.