Sunken Moskva Could Be The Biggest Naval Combat Loss In 40 Years

The Russian Navy’s Project 1164 Slava class cruiser Moskva sank in the Black Sea today, less than 24 hours after claims emerged that it was struck by Ukrainian Neptune shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles. While we currently don’t know with any certainty what exactly happened to the Moskva yesterday, the fact it ended up sinking is highly significant in itself — if it were the result of enemy action it would be an extremely rare event. Indeed, we have to go back to the Falklands War of 40 years ago to find the last time a vessel of comparable size and prestige was sunk by enemy forces. Prior to that, a vessel of this size has not been destroyed in combat, while underway, since World War II.

You can find our original reporting on the Moskva incident here, but once again it’s important to remember that the actual cause of the blaze on the Russian warship is so far unclear. While there are reports that the Ukrainian anti-ship missiles caused munitions aboard to explode, that cannot presently be confirmed. The Russians have implied it was an accident, but there is also a real threat from naval mines in the Black Sea, too. The Pentagon, for its part, has not revealed how it considers the damage was sustained. What seems beyond a doubt is that a blaze onboard the ship had such ferocity that all of the crew were forced to evacuate and that the resulting damage ultimately led to the demise of the vessel. Also keep in mind that the ship is packed with high explosive warheads, solid rocket motors, and fuel. The potential for massive secondary explosions during a fire is huge.

Pictured in happier times, the Russian Navy cruiser Moskva patrols in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria, on December 17, 2015. MAX DELANY/AFP via Getty Images

A report this evening from the Russian TASS news agency, attributed to the Russian Ministry of Defense, confirmed for the first time that the Moskva had sunk, the warship apparently foundering in poor weather while attempts were being made to tow it back to port.

In the hours after the first reports of the initial incident, the exact status of the Moskva, which is the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, had been unclear. A statement earlier today from the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed the warship was still afloat but provided no details of the extent of the damage or any idea of the number of fatalities or injuries.

“The fire on the cruiser Moskva is under control,” the Russian Ministry of Defense statement read. “There are no flames visible. Ammunition supplies are no longer exploding. The main missile armory has not been damaged … Measures are being taken to tow the cruiser into port. The causes of the fire are currently being established.”

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the Moskva remained afloat but was clearly damaged.

A senior U.S. defense official said earlier today that the cause of the damage to the Moskva remained unconfirmed but that it was judged to be “significant” and that firefighters were still tackling the blaze onboard.

Authorities in Russia said that the cruiser was being towed to a port, likely Sevastopol naval base on the occupied Crimean peninsula. The assessment of U.S. officials was a little different, however, with a statement from Pentagon spokesman John Kirby earlier today that the ship was moving under its own power, although he later backtracked on that point.

If it turns out that the Moskva was successfully engaged by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile, or indeed fell victim to another kind of Ukrainian attack that sent it to the bottom, it would be a rare and major achievement. It would also be an enormous propaganda coup for Ukraine, especially given the warship’s role in the now-legendary “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” incident at Snake Island, earlier in the conflict.

On top of that, the immediate significance to the Russian Navy is the loss of its largest warship in the Black Sea, and one of only a handful of Slavas ever completed. As well as having been one of the Russian Navy’s six largest ships overall, the Moskva was a major air defense and anti-ship asset in the region, bristling with long-range surface-to-air missiles and supersonic anti-ship missiles.

It’s worth noting that the Moskva is the second Russian Navy warship to be lost during the war in Ukraine. Last month, the Project 1171 Alligator class landing ship Saratov (originally reported as Orsk) was set ablaze in the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claimed that one of its Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) was responsible for the inferno, but there’s no firm evidence of this and it seems more likely that the ship was the victim of an accidental fire that spread into ammunition that it was either carrying or had unloaded.

More generally, a large surface combatant — the Moskva has a displacement of 11,500 tons — being disabled by any kind of enemy action is an extremely rare occurrence, provided that is what happened.

The last time a cruiser was fully destroyed by enemy action was on May 2, 1982, during the Falklands War fought in the South Atlantic between the United Kingdom and Argentina. In a somewhat controversial incident, the Argentine Navy cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the British nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Conqueror, with the loss of over 300 crew.

The Argentine Navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano lists heavily to port in the Atlantic Ocean, after being attacked by the British Conqueror during the Falklands Conflict. Press Association

The aging General Belgrano, which had first entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1938 as USS Phoenix and survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been chosen to lead one of two surface actions groups as part of an Argentine pincer attack that aimed to ensnare the two British aircraft carriers to the east of the Falklands.

In the hope of reducing the threat of submarine attack, the Argentines moved the two groups involved in the planned attack into shallower water, but Conqueror continued to trail the cruiser. With an imminent plan to land special forces on the Falklands, and unwilling to risk losing General Belgrano, the commander of the British task force, Adm. Sandy Woodward, requested permission to engage the Argentine warship. Two torpedoes were fired from the Conqueror and the resulting loss of life aboard the cruiser was worsened by poor preparations, including doors and hatches designed to contain the blast having been left open.

The controversy around the incident centers upon the fact that General Belgrano was targeted when it was outside a so-called ‘total exclusion zone,’ covering a 200-nautical-mile radius from the Falklands. While there were subsequent protests about the legality of the action, the fact remains that the British had previously warned Argentina that any ships that posed a potential threat to its own task force would be sunk.

Fully equipped, the Argentine cruiser displaced 13,645 tons, which would put it ahead of the Moskva, although some accounts state that the Argentine warship was running with a smaller displacement than the Russian cruiser, at least at the time that it was sunk.

Moreover, while the cause of the loss of the Moskva remains unclear, General Belgrano retains, at last, the dubious honor of being that last major warship to be sunk by a submarine to date. During the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, the much smaller Indian frigate INS Khukri, with a displacement of around 1,200 tons, was sunk by the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor, becoming in the process the first warship anywhere to fall prey to a submarine since the end of World War II.

A poor-quality but rare view of PNS Hangor in December 1971, while sailing toward its deployment area during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Other notable incidents of enemy action being directed against major warships in the years after 1945 have not tended to have led to the complete loss of the vessels in question.

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, anti-ship missiles played a prominent role, and the U.S. Navy was also on the receiving end. In May 1987, a modified Iraqi Dassault Falcon 50 business jet fired two Exocet missiles at the U.S. Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Stark sailing in the Persian Gulf on the sidelines of the conflict. The attack killed 37 sailors and injured 21 more but the frigate was repaired. Among the lessons of the incident was the introduction of improved decoys on U.S. Navy warships.

In the Persian Gulf, the USS Stark lists to port after being hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles within a space of 30 seconds, in May 1987. U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy experienced horrible incident in October 2000, with the attack on the USS Cole, one of its Arleigh Burke class destroyers, by suicide bombers in a small, explosive-packed craft. In contrast to the other incidents, Cole was at anchor at the time of the attack, making a refueling stop off Yemen’s southern port of Aden. The blast killed 17 and injured 39 American sailors and led to significant changes in force protection procedures across the U.S. Navy.

The USS Cole is towed away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, into open waters by the Military Sealift Command ocean-going tug USNS Catawba on October 29, 2000. The Cole was then placed aboard the civilian heavy transport ship Blue Marlin and transported back to the United States for repair. U.S. Navy

Should it turn out that the damage inflicted on the Moskva was the result of hostile action, the scale of the incident would appear to make it one of the most significant in naval warfare since the Falklands campaign a full four decades ago.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.