- On the first anniversary of the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, experts told Newsweek that its naval strategy in the region has failed.
- Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles, plus the use of sea and air drones, have pushed Russian forces from Ukraine’s coastlines.
- The Black Sea region is controlled by Turkey and has direct NATO access, which stops both Ukraine and Russia from establishing control.
As its Black Sea fleet flagship, the Moskva, reached the depths of the seabed in mid-April 2022, Russia insisted Ukraine had nothing to do with the sinking of the 510-crew guided missile cruiser.
Russian state media provided various explanations for the sinking of the prominent flagship—none of which included a deliberate Ukrainian strike.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said a “fire” followed by a “munitions blast” had inflicted “serious damage” on the cruiser, prompting a crew evacuation. “The explosions of ammunition have been stopped,” the ministry then said, according to state media, which claimed the ship was still afloat and being taken to port.
Ultimately, the ship then sank after losing “stability due to hull damage” in a “heavy storm,” according to the ministry’s narrative. But this is not the version of events presented by Ukraine, or its Western backers.
“Neptune missiles guarding the Black Sea caused very serious damage to the Russian ship,” Ukraine’s state administration, headquartered in the Black Sea port city of Odesa, wrote on April 13, 2022. The following day, John Kirby, the then Pentagon press secretary, suggested a Ukrainian missile could have been behind the sinking, saying the U.S. was “not in a position to refute” Ukraine’s claims.
Within days, however, the Pentagon looked to back Kyiv’s story, suggesting the ship appeared to have been sunk by Ukrainian missiles. Former British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Parry told the BBC that footage apparently showing the sinking Moskva left “no doubt it’s been hit by one or two missiles”.
Legacy of the Moskva sinking
The sinking marked a crucial moment for Russia, both militarily and psychologically, experts say. Moscow said in April last year that most of the Moskva’s crew were evacuated but one serviceman died and another 27 were declared missing. Ukraine says the incident killed as many as 250 sailors.
The visibility of losing their flagship for an entire fleet inevitably attracted attention, retired Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, deputy director of the Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law, told Newsweek. It was certainly a “big propaganda loss” for President Vladimir Putin, military expert David Stone said.
The ramifications for how Russia’s Black Sea fleet would be used going forward were considerable.
It proved that any and all Russian vessels approaching Ukraine’s littoral waters were under threat, Murrett added. As a result, Russia has generally been more cautious with its vessels since the sinking, Stone told Newsweek.
“It has had a huge impact on how the Russians have felt able to deploy there, particularly their surface warships,” Mark Grove, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s Maritime Studies Center at the Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth, U.K. said.
The vessel itself had a “key role” for Russia, serving as both a command ship and an “air defense node,” the British Ministry of Defense said after the ship disappeared to the Black Sea depths. The Soviet-era vessel, the originally-named “Slava” was rechristened the Mosvka in 2000—the year Putin came to power, Tracey German, professor of conflict and security in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, noted to Newsweek.
However, the Moskva’s primary purpose of fighting other ships was not particularly suited to this war, and taking out its air defense capabilities was not quite as much of a strategic loss for Russia as it could have been.
Yet it did mean Russia’s Black Sea fleet lost its primary air defense platform, according to Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute think tank. After the Moskva sunk, the fleet “could no longer safely operate off Ukraine’s coast,” he told Newsweek.
The Mosvka sinking drew attention to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It is a force which, ultimately, has failed to make much of an impression in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some experts say. It has lacked the nuclear deterrence of Russia’s Northern Fleet and the tools to make a difference for Russia, some analysts argue.
But the Moskva sinking emphasized one threat in particular, experts say: Ukraine’s dangerous stockpile of anti-ship missiles, and the damage they could inflict not only on Russia’s physical Black Sea fleet, but its reputation.
The vessel sinking “reinforced the danger of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles,” and that Russia’s navy was “struggling to deal with that threat,” Grove told Newsweek. The “very strong psychological element” combined to force Russia away from the coastlines of Ukraine, Grove said, which was “undoubtedly a shock” to Russia, even if the Moskva was an ageing warship.
Ukraine’s Anti-Ship Missiles
Since the Moskva sunk, Russia’s naval fleet in the Black Sea has largely stuck close to its bases. Staying near the shores of the annexed Crimean peninsula has offered the fleet the protection of its own air defences, Kaushal said.
Russia has two Black Sea bases, one at Sevastopol in Crimea and another at Novorossiysk, in the Russian Krasnodar region. Crimea is “a vital power projection platform” on which the Black Sea fleet depends, Kaushal said, which, unlike Novorossiysk, “can be reliably used all year round.”
The Black Sea is “critical for Russia’s wider maritime strategy” because of the link to the Mediterranean and beyond, German said. The Black Sea fleet is thus “a springboard for the country’s aspirations to be a global maritime power,” she added.
“The challenge the Russians faced in the Black Sea is that they were not expecting a Ukrainian anti-ship missile threat in the early days of the conflict,” Kaushal said. The Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles believed to have sunk the Moskva were fast-tracked by Kyiv, he added, robbing Russia of the “permissive environment” it believed it had.
Ukraine has received anti-ship weapons from allies such as the U.K. and Denmark, and on April 10, 2023, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Harpoon anti-ship missiles that it had received from Denmark played a key role in Ukraine’s Black Sea operations.
“Together with our Neptunes, the Harpoons are already forcing the enemy fleet to keep their distance to avoid the fate of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, said in June 2022.
In new comments earlier this week, Reznikov suggested the country’s military had “another ‘surprise’ at sea” in store for Russia’s navy. Referencing the sinking of the Moskva, Ukraine’s defense minister said that “we are just waiting for the right moment to repeat this story.”
Ukraine’s New Threats
But Ukrainian drones and uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) have also endangered Russia’s Black Sea forces, experts say. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have made the northern Black Sea a “much more high-risk environment” for Russia, Kaushal said. The Pentagon also noted on April 14 that after the Moskva sank, Russia moved its vessels further south in the Black Sea.
There have been several recorded Ukrainian UAV and USV strikes, notably in Sevastopol in late October 2022 and March 2023. Following the former, Putin suspended Russia’s participation in the grain deal, the U.N.- and Ankara-brokered agreement to dampen the effects of Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian food exports that had become a key tactic in the Black Sea. Some reports have claimed that the replacement flagship, the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate, the Admiral Makarov, was damaged in the October attack.
Facing UAVs and anti-ship missiles, “the Black Sea fleet has primarily served as a launch platform for cruise missiles—a pattern that is likely to continue,” Kaushal said.
However, although Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles have “severely constrained” Russia in the northern Black Sea, they do not give Ukraine the long-range capabilities to strike Moscow’s vessels in the heart of Sevastopol, Kaushal said. For this, Ukraine has turned to the likes of USVs and UAVs.
The use of USVs has influenced Russia’s decision to move some its vessels away from Sevastopol, Grove said. By the end of April 2022, around 20 vessels, including submarines, remained in the Black Sea area, according to the British defense ministry.
Uncrewed surface vessels, and the use of drones, are “one of the more important developments of the maritime side of the Russo-Ukrainian war,” Grove said. “It clearly has had a bearing on what the Russians have felt able to do.”
Original Strategy and ‘Naval Stalemate’
The Black Sea fleet has ultimately played a “supporting role” in the invasion of Ukraine, German said. Operating in an “unusual theater,” Russia has become locked in a form of “naval stalemate” with Ukraine in this enclosed sea controlled by Turkey, Grove added. But not only this, three NATO nations have direct access to the Black Sea—something Russia is “very conscious of,” according to Murrett.
Some experts point to Putin’s likely naval strategy in the Black Sea failing, even before the Mosvka sank in April 2022.
Some analysts had expected Russia’s navy to support Moscow’s forces seizing the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson as they then moved towards Odesa, launching a “reasonably large amphibious assault” to try and turn the Ukrainian flank, Grove said.
A move consistent with Russian and Soviet military doctrine, Russia could not safely do so as the Kremlin’s forces failed to progress to Odesa, and due to Ukraine’s shorelines being too unsafe. Beaching landing ships onto Odesa’s shores was too risky against Ukrainian mines, missile systems and defenses, Grove said.
“The original naval strategy that we believe that Putin and his generals and admirals had in mind could not be achieved, and I think that’s a very important thing for us to recognize.”
Even now, Russia could not think to launch such amphibious operations—not least because its specialized forces, including the naval infantry, have been chewed up in ground assaults elsewhere in Ukraine, experts say.
“They simply lack the capability to launch such an attack,” Grove said.
But Russia has had partial success in one element, experts noted. The Kremlin has maintained control over Ukrainian grain exports, which hinge on the grain deal, meaning “the impact of its war in Ukraine is felt far beyond the region,” German said. Russia has had a de facto blockade of the Sea of Azov in place for years, she added, meaning Ukraine’s Azov ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk suffered at the navy’s hands long before all-out war started.
“Russia essentially controlled the loading and unloading operations at two of Ukraine’s most important ports, and, in the years prior to its 2022 invasion, effectively put a stranglehold on Ukraine’s economy, impacting its GDP and the country’s economic development,” German argued.
Yet it is “not clear that there’s a particular role for the Black Sea Fleet fleet to play now in the war as it stands,” Stone said.
Overall, a degree of “stasis” prevails in the Black Sea, Grove added. “There’s not much sign of anything changing in the near term,” he said, with Russia’s navy likely to stay well away from Ukraine’s coast, but continue to launch cruise missile attacks.