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Sinking of Russian warship offers Ukraine a morale — and maybe strategic — boost

The sinking of Russia’s Moskva cruiser has dealt a major blow to the Kremlin’s fleet in the Black Sea and offered up a big public relations win to Ukrainian forces.

The warship — which sank Thursday after Ukrainian and US officials said it was struck by two Neptune missiles, exploded and caught fire — was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and one of its most visible weapons in its attack on Ukraine.

The significance is not lost on the Ukrainians, who quickly began using the incident in videos and images posted to social media. But experts are split on whether the ship’s sinking could turn the tide of the war.

“If they start losing their fleet during this war, before the war is even done, the impact on their long-term strategy will be tremendous,” said retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a former US defense attaché to Russia who is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University.

Ryan noted the Russian navy has operated roughly 12 to 24 ships in the Black Sea since the start of the invasion, 11 of which are around the same size as the Moskva. To lose even one of those vessels cuts Moscow’s naval fleet power in the Black Sea by roughly 10 percent, he said.

It’s also unlikely Russia will be able to quickly replace the Moskva, which can carry up to 500 sailors, as “it takes them a long time to repair and refit ships,” Ryan said. “They are notoriously bad at that.”

At the Institute for the Study of War, meanwhile, analysts see the incident as “a major propaganda victory for Ukraine” that is likely to hurt Russian morale but not a major shift in the conflict.

Because Russia used the vessel largely for air defense coverage of its Black Sea Fleet and not to strike Ukrainian land targets, its sinking is “unlikely to deal a decisive blow to Russian operations on the whole,” analysts Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko and George Barros wrote in their daily war briefing.

But they noted that the claimed Ukrainian strike may change Russian operating patterns in the sea, forcing them to deploy more air defenses to the area or pull their vessels from positions near the Ukrainian coast.

The US has already seen such maneuvering, a senior defense official told reporters Thursday, with other Russian ships in the northern Black Sea moving further south since the explosion.

It’s hard to determine whether the Moskva will be a turning point due to the Russian navy’s so far limited use of its warships for strikes on Ukrainian targets, instead mainly using aircraft and land-based systems for such attacks.

Moscow’s naval component to the war has largely been limited to two efforts: the replenishment and resupply of troops efforts in the south and some cruise missile strikes on Ukraine, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

As the Moskva’s main mission was air defense for the Russian forces in the Black Sea, “it’s going to have an impact on their capabilities, certainly in the near term,” he said.

Whether it has an impact on their naval capabilities in the long term is “just unclear right now,” Kirby added.

What is clear, however, is the sinking has significance.

The Moskva is the first major surface combatant to be sunk by enemy action in 40 years, since the Falklands War in 1982, when the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano sunk after it was torpedoed by a British nuclear-powered submarine.

It is also an already widely known ship thanks to its prominence at the start of the invasion, when it told Ukrainian troops on Snake Island to surrender, only to be told to “f—” itself. The moment was widely shared as a rallying cry and ode to Ukrainian resistance.

Ukrainian officials have already begun to mock the sinking on social media, with an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Oleksiy Arestovych, on Thursday tweet to video that he claimed portrayed the point the Moskva was struck by Ukraine’s missiles.

“The flagship of the Russian navy, Moskva, carried out a negative surfacing operation in the area of ​​that island where it was told to go f*** itself. Where is Moscow? It sunk,” he said.

And the county’s defense minister tweeted Friday that the ship is now a “worthy diving site.”

“A ‘flagship’ russian warship is a worthy diving site. We have one more diving spot in the Black Sea now. Will definitely visit the wreck after our victory in the war. [By the way]I already have 300 scuba dives,” Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted along with a photo of him scuba diving in the sea.

The vessel’s destruction could also affect Russian morale and raise new doubts about Russia’s so far disastrous invasion of Ukraine, according to Clark, Stepanenko and Barros.

“The Kremlin will conversely struggle to explain away the loss of one of the most important vessels in the Russian fleet,” they wrote. “Both explanations for the sinking of the Moskvaindicate possible Russian deficiencies – either poor air defenses or incredibly lax safety procedures and damage control on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship.”

But it may also prompt a ramp-up of the Kremlin’s attacks on Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Friday warned it will increase strikes in retaliation for hits on Moscow’s assets — even as it continued to deny the ship had been successfully attacked.

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