KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – The Russian military suffered a major blow on Thursday when the flagship of the country’s Black Sea Fleet was badly damaged and its crew evacuated. Ukrainian officials said their forces hit the vessel with missiles, while Russia acknowledged a fire aboard Moscow but made no attack.
The warship named after the Russian capital was 60 to 65 nautical miles south of Odesa when the fire ignited and the vessel was still battling the flames hours later as it headed east, according to a Pentagon official. The loss of the ship would be a major military setback and a devastating symbolic defeat for Moscow as its troops gather for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine after withdrawing from large parts of the north, including the capital.
Despite an early report from a Ukrainian official who said the ship had sunk, Moscow was still moving on its own, at least for now, a senior U.S. defense official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments, said the Pentagon could not confirm what caused the fire.
Russia said the fire on board the ship, which typically wanted 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 guided missile launch ramps intact.
The ship can carry 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 in a war already widely regarded as a historic blunder.. Now heading into its eighth week, Russia’s invasion has stalled due to resistance from Ukrainian fighters backed by weapons and other aid sent by Western nations.
Satellite images from Planet Labs PBC show Moscow steaming out of the port of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula on Sunday. But cloud cover Thursday made it impossible to use satellite images to locate the ship or determine its condition.
The news of the flagship’s damage overshadowed Russian claims of progress in the southern port city of Mariupol, where they have fought the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the war’s toughest battles – at a terrible price for civilians..
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 1,026 Ukrainian troops had surrendered at a metal factory in the city. But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, dismissed the claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle for the port is still going on today.”
It was unclear how many forces were still defending Mariupol.
Russian state television broadcast footage that it said was from Mariupol, showing dozens of men in camouflage walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers. A man was holding a white flag.
Mariupol’s capture is critical of Russia because it would allow its forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean peninsula, to fully connect with troops in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland and the target of the coming offensive. .
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine in the Donbas since 2014, the same year that Russia conquered Crimea. Russia has recognized independence of the rebel regions of the Donbas.
The loss of Moscow could delay any new, far-reaching offensive.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region across the Black Sea northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians hit the ship 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”. But Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, later said he was unable to confirm that the ship had sunk or even been hit by Ukrainian forces. He said he was aware of the comments made 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 get a sigh of relief because it means fewer missiles will reach Ukrainian cities,” he told the Associated Press.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire without saying what caused the fire. It later said the ship was floating and would be towed for repair. It said its “main missile weapon” was not damaged. In addition to the cruise missiles, the warship also had air defense missiles and other cannons.
Neptune is an anti-ship missile recently developed by Ukraine and based on a former Soviet design. The launch pads 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 kilometers (175 miles) away.
The United States was unable to confirm Ukraine’s claims of attacking the warship, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday. Yet he called it “a great blow to Russia.”
“They have had to somehow choose between two stories: one story is that it was just incompetence and the other was that they came under attack, and that’s not a very good result for them either,” said Sullivan to the Economic Club. Washington.
During the early days of the war, Moscow was reportedly the warship urging Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea to surrender in a standoff. In a widespread recording, the soldier replies: “Russian warship, go (pronounced) yourself.”
The AP could not independently verify the incident, but Ukraine and its supporters consider it an iconic moment notwithstanding. The country recently unveiled a stamp commemorating it.
Russia invaded on February 24, but the country’s advance came to a standstill in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance using Western weapons., and Russia has potentially lost thousands of warriors. The conflict has killed countless Ukrainian civilians and forced millions to flee. It has also threatened the global economy and further inflated already high prices in grocery stores and petrol pumps around the world.
Russian authorities on Thursday 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, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the border. Russia’s investigative committee said seven people, including a small child, were injured.
Russia’s state security service had previously said Ukrainian forces fired mortar rounds at a border post in Bryansk as refugees crossed, forcing them to flee.
The reports could not be independently verified. Earlier this month, Ukrainian security officials denied that Kiev was behind an airstrike on an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) from the border.
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine