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Russia says flagship missile cruiser has sunk after explosion off coast of Ukraine

Russia's Moskva guided missile cruiser in 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)
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The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet sank after an attack from Ukrainian forces triggered a “significant explosion” as the vessel floated off the coast of Ukraine, U.S. officials said Thursday, with Moscow offering a competing claim about the cause of the destruction.

Russia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged the sinking but said its missile cruiser — the Moskva — had been damaged after a fire. Earlier that day, the hobbled warship was moving under its own power, heading to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol for repairs, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. The episode buoys the morale of Ukrainian forces, who have repelled the Russian invasion for 50 days and are girding for a new phase of fierce fighting in the country’s east.

The explosion occurred Wednesday, when the ship was roughly 75 miles from Odessa, a seaside hub in Ukraine’s south, a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. Odessa’s governor said the Moskva was hit by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile, an assertion backed by another American official familiar with the matter, who confirmed the strike but could not verify the specific weapons system used.

Russia, meanwhile, said the fire on board caused ammunition stocks to detonate, forcing the evacuation of at least some of the 500-person crew. As the Moskva was being towed to port, it sank due to a “heavy storm,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. It was not clear whether any crew members died in the incident. After the explosion, several other Russian warships in the northern part of the Black Sea repositioned farther from shore, the U.S. defense official said.

The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet sank after an attack from Ukrainian forces triggered a “significant explosion,” U.S. officials said on April 14. (Video: Reuters)

Experts and analysts said Ukraine’s claim of a successful strike was more credible than the explanations emerging from Moscow. But regardless of the cause, the ship’s loss is a major, if symbolic, setback for Russia, said Artyom Lukin, an international relations professor at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.

The Moskva is named after Russia’s capital and was at the center of a widely reported attack against Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea. The guards drew global attention for insulting Russian troops during the early days of the invasion.

“The loss of not just a principal surface combatant in the Russian navy, but also the fleet flagship, would amount to more of a psychological blow to the Russians,” said Collin Koh, an expert on maritime security at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Ukrainians formed long lines outside a Kyiv post office on April 14 to buy stamps of a Ukrainian border guard displaying his middle finger to a Russian warship. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

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Ukraine’s military said its forces had fired a Neptune anti-ship missile at the Moskva, and the U.S. defense official said the claim was plausible, adding that artillery rounds and missiles aboard the ship could also have been involved in an explosion, or that the ship could have struck a mine.

One Moscow-based think tank, the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said on its Telegram channel earlier Thursday that it believed the ship had been sunk in a missile attack. The source of the think tank’s claims was unclear. Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was “more likely” that the explosion was caused by Ukraine’s anti-ship cruise missiles than by some sort of accident.

“Given that there’s a war going on and the Ukrainians have this anti-ship capability, it’s more likely that it was caused by these cruise missiles,” Cancian said.

Ukraine began developing the Neptune missile in 2013 as a deterrent against Russian sea power off its southeastern coast. It is based on an older Russian model, the KH-35, which Ukraine was also involved in producing. Fired from a truck-mounted launcher, the missile has a maximum range of 173 to 186 miles.

At roughly 600 feet long, the Moskva presented a large target. It was armed with 16 anti-ship missiles and originally built to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers. Its destruction could reduce Russia’s capabilities against NATO, Cancian said.

“The flagship is literally the ship on which the admiral’s flag flies,” he said. “It’s typically the largest and most important ship in a fleet or squadron, and that’s the case here — this is a large and very powerful ship.”

The damage to the Moskva is more significant because of previous Russian naval losses, said James Black, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corp. Last month, Ukraine’s navy said it hit a Russian amphibious landing ship in Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port that Russian forces have occupied.

No matter what caused the damage to the Moskva, Black said, “it will likely be seen as poetic justice by Ukrainians and their supporters.”

John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.