As Russian media and officials scrambled to explain the sinking of the Black Sea flagship on Friday, it was clear that the loss of the cruiser and countless of her estimated 510 crew members dealt a blow. to Vladimir Putin’s war plans and the prestige of his army.
From the start, the Russian government tried to minimize what had happened. At first, his Ministry of Defense claimed that an accident caused a fire on board. Afterwards, the ministry said the damage had been contained and the ship was being towed to the port of Sevastopol. Finally, on Thursday evening, the ministry announced that the ship had sunk in “rough seas”.
But even as state television commentators tried to paint the Moskva loss as a temporary setback, the Russians could tell that something serious had happened.
Andrei Medvedev, a journalist with the public television channel VGTRK and a deputy of the Moscow City Council, wrote: “The Moskva cruiser is a bad story. Both from a reputational and military point of view. But is it a disaster? Nope.”
The extent of the loss is not yet known. Ukraine claims to have hit the Moskva with a Neptune anti-ship missile. No photos of the Moskva or her crew have appeared in Russian media since the ship was damaged. Some Western reports suggest that only dozens of the estimated 500 crew were rescued when the ship sank. Russia has not released any official information on the number of sailors who died.
The ship’s loss was so unlikely in Moscow’s eyes that in 2020 Orthodox Christian officials said it had been assigned to carry a piece of the “true cross”, a relic of the wooden cross on which Jesus- Christ would have been crucified.
At the very least, it will deal another blow to the image of the Russian military as a professional force conducting what the Kremlin calls a “special operation” on the territory of Ukraine.
The sinking of the ship was “in stark contrast to the image of a successfully modernized military promoted by Russian officials and state media, and the self-confidence with which Russia has embarked on this war” , wrote political analyst Alexander Baunov.
The loss of the cruiser may not make a crucial difference in Russia’s war plans. The Russian fleet will continue to block Ukrainian Black Sea ports, although it appears the flotilla has moved away from the coast in order to prevent another attack. Some less plausible scenarios, like a Russian amphibious landing near Odessa, seem even more distant now.
Meanwhile, fighting on the ground continues. Russian experts have claimed the sinking of the ship was a distraction from creeping Russian gains in cities such as Mariupol, where Moscow says Ukrainian marines have visited. The Russian military is looking to an offensive in eastern Ukraine, promising a new chapter in the war that will rely far more on trenches and heavy artillery than in previous months.
But the extent of the losses aboard the Moskva will no doubt shock Russian public opinion, which has been told many times, like Putin, that the war in Ukraine was going to be planned. The sinking is just the latest indication that the conflict won’t end anytime soon.