KYIV, Ukraine — The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a guided-missile cruiser that became a potent target of Ukrainian defiance in the opening days of the war, sank Thursday after it was heavily damaged in the latest setback for Moscow’s invasion.
According to Ukrainian officials, their forces attacked the vessel using missiles. Russia however acknowledged that there had been a fire on the Moskva. However, no attacks were made. Officials from the U.S., Canada and other Western countries could not verify what set off the fire.
Moscow’s loss of its warship, named after the Russian capital, is a significant symbolic victory as it regroups for an offensive in eastern Ukraine. It had previously retreated from most of the north including Kyiv.
In his nightly video address to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to the sinking as he told Ukrainians they should be proud of having survived 50 days under attack when the Russians “gave us a maximum of five.”
Listing the many ways Ukraine has defended against the invasion, he noted “those who showed that Russian warships can sail away, even if it’s to the bottom” of the sea. This was the only mention he made of the missile cruiser.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the ship was being pulled from a port by a storm and then it sank. Russia had earlier stated that the fire on the vessel, with 500 sailors, caused the crew to flee. It later stated that the fire was under control.
The Moskva had the capacity to carry 16 long-range cruise missiles, and its removal reduces Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. It’s also a blow to Moscow’s prestige in a war already widely seen as a historic blunder. The invasion is now in its eighth week. It has been stalled by resistance from Ukrainian fighters, aided by Western weapons.
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According to reports, during the initial days of the conflict the Moskva called upon Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Snake Island on the Black Sea for surrender. In a widely circulated recording, a soldier responded: “Russian warship, go (expletive) yourself.”
Although the Associated Press couldn’t independently confirm this incident, supporters of Ukraine consider it a moment of great defiance. A commemorative postage stamp was recently released by the country.
The news of the flagship overshadowed Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol, where Moscow’s forces have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the heaviest fighting of the war — at a horrific cost to civilians.
Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry said that 1 026 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to Russian forces at a city metals plant. But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, rejected the claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle over the seaport is still ongoing today.”
Unknown was the number of forces still fighting to defend Mariupol.
Russian state television showed footage of many men wearing camouflage, some holding their hands high and others carrying other people on stretchers. One man was holding a white flag.
Mariupol has been the scene of the some the war’s worst suffering. A shrinking number of Ukrainian soldiers are resisting a siege that has entrapped well over 100,000 civilians who desperately need food, water, and heating. David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told AP in an interview Thursday that people are being “starved to death” in the besieged city.
Mariupol’s mayor said this week that more than 10,000 civilians had died and the death toll could surpass 20,000, after weeks of attacks and privation left bodies “carpeted through the streets.”
Mariupol’s capture is critical for Russia because it would allow its forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland and the target of the coming offensive.
Russian sailors salute on the bows of Moskva’s missile cruiser Moskva at Sevastopol in Crimea. March 30, 2014.
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File
The Russian military continues to move helicopters and other equipment together for such an effort, according to a senior U.S. defense official, and it will likely add more ground combat units “over coming days.” But it’s still unclear when Russia could launch a bigger offensive in the Donbas.
Since 2014, Russia’s seized Crimea and Moscow has supported separatists fighting Ukraine in Donbas. Russia recognized independence for rebel Donbas regions.
A loss of the Moskva may delay any wide-ranging new offensive.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region, across the Black Sea to the northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the blaze. It said the “main missile weapons” were not damaged. Apart from the cruise missiles the warship had other weapons, including air-defense and missiles.
Neptune, an Anti-ship Missile developed by Ukraine and inspired from an earlier Soviet design is the latest. According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the missiles are capable of hitting targets at up to 280km (175mile) distance. Based on the location of the Moskva when it started the fire, this would have placed the Moskva in range.
In 1979, it was named the Slava and served in both the Cold War and in conflicts in Georgia and Syria. The cruiser also assisted with peacetime scientific collaborations with the United States. It was equipped with nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
A meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of Soviet Union and President George H.W. was planned for the Slava in 1989. Bush. However, gale force winds moved the meetings to Maxim Gorky’s docked cruiser.
According to a top U.S. defense official, who spoke under anonymity in order not to reveal internal military assessments, Russian vessels that had been also in the north Black Sea moved southwards on Thursday after the Moskva set fire.
Before the Moskva sank, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told AP its removal would mean “we can only have a sigh of relief.”
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While the U.S. was not able to confirm Ukraine’s claims of striking the warship, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan called it “a big blow to Russia.”
“They’ve had to kind of choose between two stories: One story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they came under attack, and neither is a particularly good outcome for them,” Sullivan told the Economic Club of Washington.
Russia invaded the Ukraine on February 24, and potentially lost thousands of its fighters. Untold numbers have been killed in conflict with Ukraine, and millions of people fled.
The war has also pushed up gasoline prices and inflation, thereby dragging down the global economy. According to the International Monetary Fund’s head, the war caused the institution to lower its economic forecasts for 143 nations.
Also Thursday, Russian authorities accused Ukraine of sending two low-flying military helicopters some 11 kilometers (7 miles) across the border and firing on residential buildings in the village of Klimovo, in Russia’s Bryansk region. Russia’s Investigative Committee said seven people, including a toddler, were wounded.
Russia’s state security service had earlier said Ukrainian forces fired mortar rounds at a border post in Bryansk as refugees were crossing, forcing them to flee.
They could not be verified independently. A strike by Ukrainian forces on an oil facility in Belgorod (55 kms, 35 miles) away from Russia’s border was denied earlier this month by Ukrainian security officers.
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