LONDON — Russian officials said their flagship Black Sea vessel sank in what Ukrainian officials claimed was a missile strike against the warship Moskva.
Defense Ministry officials in Moscow said on Thursday that the Moskva, a warship leading the country’s naval assault against Ukraine, sank while being towed to port during a storm. Moscow initially said a "fire" set off some of its weapons and that “ammunition exploded on board" as a result. Officials said the crew, believed to include around 500 sailors, were safely evacuated from the burning ship. The ministry said the fire is now under investigation.
However, the governor of Odesa claimed the damage was a result of a Ukrainian missile strike on Wednesday.
"It has been confirmed that the missile cruiser Moskva today went exactly where it was sent by our border guards on Snake Island!” the governor, Maksym Marchenko, said in a post on Telegram. “Neptune missiles protecting the Black Sea have caused significant damage to this Russian ship.”
The Neptune is a Ukrainian-made anti-ship weapon that came into operation just last year, and its design is based on the Soviet Kh-35 cruise missile. The launchers are mounted on trucks and can hit targets up to roughly 175 miles away, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Neither Russia's nor Ukraine’s claims have been independently verified. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said early Thursday that the U.S. cannot confirm Ukraine's claims of hitting the ship but did say it was a “big blow to Russia.”
Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy at King's College London, told CNN that losing the flagship vessel would be a "massive blow" for Russian forces. "Ships operate away from public attention, and their activities are rarely the subject of news,” he said. “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 the military loss — stands out precisely because of it.”
Two Ukrainian sources confirmed to Sky News that the 13,780-ton warship had been hit by missiles launched by Ukraine. "She is on fire," one of the sources said of the warship. "The level of damage is being clarified. … She is about 25 nautical miles from Snake Island."
The Moskva is the ship that tried to attack Snake Island in February on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The warship approached the island in the Black Sea and ordered 13 Ukrainian soldiers to surrender. However, the Ukrainian soldiers told the Moskva to “go f*** yourself.” After the attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the soldiers “died heroically but did not give up.” It was later reported by the country’s navy that they had been captured alive by Russia. According to the Ukrainian Parliament, the soldiers were later released in a prisoner swap.
The warship has led the naval assault on Ukraine, making it an important military target. Moskva has been a naval power in the Black Sea since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It carries a number of anti-submarine and mine-torpedo weapons and holds over a dozen Vulkan anti-ship missiles.
If the Moskva is lost, it will be the second Russian warship to be destroyed by the Ukrainian military. On March 25, officials from Ukraine said they had struck a landing ship, named by Ukrainian forces as the Saratov, at the port of Berdyansk the day before. Videos from social media showed fires raging and smoke billowing from the docks, which had been occupied by Russian forces.