Sinking The Moskva, Inside Ukraine's Biggest Strike On The Russian Black Sea Fleet
As Ukraine steps up its attacks on the Black Sea fleet and other targets in Crimea, here's the inside story of Russia's devastating naval defeat in April, 2022.
Updated September 15, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.
KYIV — On April 13, 2022 the Russian military suffered its worst naval defeat in modern times when the flagship of Moscow’s fleet, the cruiser Moskva based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, was sunk.
Based on dozens of interviews with Ukrainian military officials and viewing never-before-seen photos of the incident, Kyiv-based news service Ukrainian Pravda has conducted its own exclusive investigation to reconstruct how Ukraine successfully carried out the attack.
Russia still actively avoids any public references to the Moskva, and there are relatives of dead sailors who still have not received any information about the fate of their loved ones. The Russian Defense Ministry has offered no details about the causes of the sinking, claiming that the ship suffered "surfacing failure," after a fire. Moscow has made allusion to bad weather and claimed that all crew members had been rescued.
In recent days, Ukraine has stepped long-range attacks on the Crimean peninsula, taking aim at Russian naval targets and port infrastructure in the port city of Sevastopol. A Ukrainian intelligence official told The Guardian that a large vessel and a submarine struck in the attack were so badly damaged as to be likely beyond repair.
Russia has refused to confirm the attacks, much like it did after the first reports of the Moskva strike. However, it is impossible to hide last year's loss of the main pride of the fleet and the reported 27 crew members who perished. The Moskva, a Russian guards missile cruiser, received its special flagship status in 2016 personally from Vladimir Putin, designed for strikes against large enemy surface ships, and fully equipped with air defense for remote formations and fire support for amphibious assaults.
U.S. intel claims
The day after the accident, Western media was quick to report that Moskva had been hit by Ukrainian operated Neptune missiles, thanks to the coordinates of the U.S. intelligence. However, Ukrainian military officials, speaking to Ukrainian Pravda, dismiss this version: the Ukrainian gunners got help from the weather, not foreign intel.
It was the worst day to sink the cruiser.
At first view, April 13 was the worst day to try to sink the cruiser - the weather was terrible. From the early morning, the sky over the Black Sea along the Ukrainian coast was covered with dark rain clouds. And the operator of the southern missile complex in the Odessa region had only conventional radars at hand, which were not equipped to see targets further than 18 kilometers. This reality was known by the Moskva crew, which turned out to be the fatal mistake.
"At the time of the invasion, we had no over-the-horizon radars, and Russia knew it. But since the clouds were very low and the signal in this corridor between the water and the clouds had nowhere to go, the radar suddenly reached (and identified) Moskva,” the source explains.
According to our sources, the Russians were so confident in their invulnerability that they probably hadn’t activated air defense systems.
A file photo of the Russian Navy's Black Sea flagship, RTS Moskva before its sinking
Neptunes arrive just in time
The "Neptune" is a quiet liquid-fueled missile that sneaks up on a ship unnoticed until the very last moment. It is almost invisible to conventional air defense systems because it flies over the water itself," explains a source from Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
At the end of 2020, Neptune received funding at President Volodymyr Zelensky's personal request. The first missiles came to Odessa only on February 20, 2022, just a few days before the Russian invasion. Two months later, they would be used for the biggest prize of all.
There was no immediate way to verify if the missiles had reached the target.
Thus on April 13, convinced it was shielded by the weather, the Russian cruiser unexpectedly entered just close enough to be reached by Ukrainian missiles. And as soon as this was recorded because of the formation of the clouds, two Neptunes immediately launched. Ukrainian Pravda obtained a photo of this historic missile launch.
According to engineers' calculations, the 18 kilometers that the Neptune would have to travel should have been six minutes. Yet there was no immediate way to verify if the missiles had reached the target.
"But then came the data that the Moskva was hit while traveling at full speed. This meant that something did happen," a missile specialist says off the record. At the same time, Ukrainian radar registered four ships simultaneously rushing to the cruiser from different directions. But then, a storm at sea suddenly began, making rescue operations became very difficult.
When the Ukrainian military realized that a tugboat had also been brought in from Crimea, it became evident that the situation on the cruiser was critical. Hundreds of Russian sailors from other ships saw Moskva hit by two Neptunes but could only helplessly circle around. It turned out to be impossible to tow the cruiser.
A top Ukrainian security official tracking events that night messaged a journalist of Ukrainian Pravda: "the Moskva is gone."
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