On April 14 reports emerged that one of Russia’s largest warships and the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet the Slava Class cruiser Moskva had suffered explosions and a fire onboard possibly due to a Ukrainian cruise missile strike. The missiles used are thought to be variants of the Soviet Kh-35, Cold War era variants of which have a range of little over 100km and fly at near supersonic speeds. The Russian Defence Ministry subsequently reported that the fire had been contained and the detonation of ammunition on board the warship had been averted with the cause of the fire still under investigation. Hours later it was reported that the ship had sunk after encountering a storm while returning to dock. The number of casualties among the 480 man crew remains unknown.
The loss of the Moskva likely represents the most significant for the Russian Military since the Second World War, and is one of very few combat losses worldwide of a ship of its size since the 1940s. The loss is particularly devastating for the Russian Navy due to the fact that Russia no longer produces destroyer or cruiser sized ships, with the Moskva Class vessels all having entered service in the 1980s before the Soviet collapse. This makes replacing the vessel with one of a similar size unlikely in the near future unless procured from abroad. The loss of the warship to relatively low cost cruise missiles has the potential to accelerate Russia’s steps towards focusing on smaller frigate and corvette sized ships and reducing its fleet of cruisers and destroyers.
The Moskva was one of just three cruisers of its class in service, with two newer ships deployed under the Northern and Pacific fleets. The cruiser program was cut short by the end of the Cold War with only three of a planned nine ships constructed, with the large 11,000 ton vessels having been intended primarily for surface warfare carrying 16 large P-1000 cruise missiles and 40 surface to air missiles from the OSA series as its primary armament. Although relatively small for cruisers, the Slava Class are the second largest surface combatants in Russian service only to the nuclear powered Kirov Class which are over twice as large and of which just two are in service. It remains uncertain how the Russian Navy will react to the loss, and whether upgrades to or even a decommissioning of the other two Slava Class ships could commence to remove a vulnerability exposed in the Black Sea. The Moskva’s sinking could potentially have significant impacts far beyond Russia, as a number of countries rely on missiles similar to the Kh-35 to asymmetrically tackle large surface ships which has now arguably been vindicated as a viable strategy under at least some circumstances. The sinking comes amid growing arguments that large surface combat ships have become increasingly obsolete operating near enemy coasts due to the growing potency of asymmetric anti ships assets many of which are several decades more advanced than Ukraine’s Kh-35 arsenal.