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The most significant naval loss since the Falklands War: The sinking of the Moskva

Forty years ago last week, the sinking of Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Sheffield as a consequence of an anti-ship missile strike marked the first major loss of a British surface combatant since the Second World War. The sinking of HMS Sheffield represented a watershed moment, not merely for the impact it had on the conduct of naval operations at the time, but for the debate it prompted about how denial capabilities – and anti-ship missile threats – were contributing to the challenge of a navy’s ability to establish and exploit sea control.

A little less than a month ago, the sinking of the Russian Black Sea fleet’s flagship, the cruiser Moskva, marked the most significant naval loss since HMS Sheffield. At a first glance, the dynamics would appear to be not too dissimilar in that the warship was lost as a consequence of the damage sustained during Ukrainian anti-ship missiles strikes. Yet, the two events are very different. Whilst the loss of the Moskva provided a dramatic reminder of the costs that relatively affordable denial capabilities can inflict to major surface combatants, the wider ‘lessons’ about this loss for major contemporary navies should not be overstated.


The Moskva was in no measure a cutting edge asset in naval terms. Originally commissioned in 1983 with the name Slava (Glory), the ship was built in Ukraine, and had been recommissioned after some necessary refit in 2000 with the current name. The Moskva was a veteran from the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it was deployed in the Black Sea to secure Russian control and, in the process, sustained a hit during the brief naval actions of the war. Crucially, the Moskva was supposed to undergo a major refit and upgrade in 2016, but this did not take place.


Such initial observations matter because they raise important questions about the state of battle readiness of the ship’s systems as well as the crew. Whilst open source evidence allow only incomplete insights into this matter, it is nonetheless possible to argue that an assessment of the relevance of the loss of this ship unfolds from three factors: the Moskva was the flagship of the Black Sea; her primary mission was to secure sea control for Russia in this theatre and to exploit it; and indeed, it saw action in the very opening stages of the invasion to perform such mission.


Perhaps the most emblematic example of the Moskva’s early actions in the war concerns what has come to embody one of the icons of Ukrainian heroism in the war: the shelling of Snake Island. The imagery of the Ukrainian soldiers responding in defiance to the ship hailing them to surrender became a metaphor of an existential David against Goliath challenge, a metaphor of sheer grit and determination to resist against the heaviest odds. Such an iconic moment should not detract from the fact that the island occupied a key strategic position in the maritime theatre of the war for any offensive operations against Odessa to take place. Therefore Snake Island was a primary Russian target in the early stages of the invasion.


As the Bosporus was closed to all warships, the Mosva also became the main asset supporting Russian naval operations to project power ashore from the Black Sea. This was, in strategic terms, a key asset; it was a central component of a wider statement about Moscow’s control of the maritime operational battlespace.


On 13 April, the Moskva came under attack and the ensuing fires explain the damage it sustained. Whilst some of the details of the dynamics remain unclear, early images of the ship indicate that the ship was hit by Ukrainian Neptune missiles whilst it was operating on a known deployment pattern well within these missiles strike range. How could this happen? Open-source information highlights themes already raised in regards to the land campaign. The Russian navy, seemingly confident in it superior capabilities, underestimated Ukrainian denial efforts from the shores. Further, Russian concepts of operations, preparation and readiness seemed not up to the standards needed to limit that damage sustained would be lethal.


What are the lessons to take from this event then? In addition to stressing the challenge to operate in contested littorals, the sinking of Moskva emphasised the deadly and devastating effects of fires on a warship. In turn, this observation indicates how damage control remains a key metric against which professional naval standards should be assessed. In regards to Russian military operations, the loss of the Moskva leaves Putin’s options for amphibious assaults in the Black Sea in support of operations in the south much harder to be pursued. Symbolically, this is also a major defeat. David has shaken Goliath and exposed its limits. On the other hand, this is also the reason why western navies may find a measure of reassurance. Continuous training to refine seamanship, ship handling, and a mental attitude that accounts for the challenges to modern operations are inherent components of how NATO and other US partners fashion themselves.


More will be written on this event as additional information becomes available. For now, the naval theatre is likely to remain more turbulent for Russia. Russian commanders will feel less secure as they reflect upon the fact that the Black Sea is no longer their lake. From launching pad for power projection, the Black Sea stands today as a constrained space where denial has exposed the limits of control. Forty years ago, the loss of Sheffield shook the Royal Navy to the core and led its leadership to adapt and overcome. For Russia this might not be as easily the case. In that sense, this is the most significant naval loss since the Falklands War.

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Alessio Patalano

Alessio Patalano

Professor of War & Strategy in East Asia

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