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Russia now says 1 crew member died, 27 are missing in the sinking of its warship

The Moskva guided missile cruiser participates in a Russian military parade near a navy base in the Ukrainian town of Sevastopol in July 2011.
Vasily Maximov
AFP via Getty Images
The Moskva guided missile cruiser participates in a Russian military parade near a navy base in the Ukrainian town of Sevastopol in July 2011.

Updated April 22, 2022 at 5:50 PM ET

The Russian missile cruiser that was damaged in a fire on April 14 was hit and ultimately sunk by Ukrainian missile strikes, a senior U.S. defense official confirmed the following day. Russia and Ukraine have offered differing accounts of what happened to the Moskva.

On April 22, the Russian Defense Ministry said one servicemen died and 27 more crew are missing. Initially, the ministry had said it had evacuated the entire crew from the vessel after ammunition exploded on board.

Russia's admission of missing crew follows the release of a short video by the military last weekend. In it, the head of Russia's navy met with what appeared to be about 100 servicemen from the Moskva. At the time of its sinking, the ship's crew was estimated at around 500.

The U.S. defense source confirmed that the ship was hit by two Neptune missiles and told NPR that casualties were likely.

Experts say the loss of the Moskva — the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet — is significant both symbolically and militarily, even if it doesn't deal a decisive blow to Russia's overall operations.

Ukraine claims responsibility, saying it hit the vessel with two Neptune anti-ship missiles about 60 miles off the coast of Odesa.

Russian defense officials said later that the vessel sank while being towed to shore in stormy weather, though weather reports indicate that conditions on the Black Sea were mild.

While losing one vessel isn't going to immobilize Russia's navy, it reinforces the narrative that Ukrainian troops can still deliver powerful blows by being more agile and creative, as NPR's Greg Myre reports. This is the second major vessel that Russia has lost off the coast of Ukraine in recent weeks.

The U.S. Defense Department previously noted that other Russian warships in the northern Black Sea moved farther away from the coast following Thursday's episode, a move that raised questions about Russia's claim that it was an accident.

Retired Adm. James Foggo, who commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, said earlier on Thursday that though the forensics of what happened were ongoing at that time, the significance of the loss was clear, especially since the flagship of any navy is "the biggest and the best and the brightest."

"This is a terribly humiliating blow to the Russian navy, and it's rather astonishing that they could allow this to happen to themselves," Foggo told Morning Edition.

Here's what we know about the history and significance of the sunken ship.

The Cold War-era ship played roles in conflicts in Georgia and Syria

The star of Russia's Black Sea Fleet has a legacy dating back to the Cold War.

The ship was built in then-Soviet Ukraine — in the southern city of Mykolaiv, which has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces in recent days — and was launched in 1979. It originally bore the name Slava (which means "glory") but was renamed for Russia's capital after the Soviet Union's fall, according to Reuters.

The vessel, which carried nuclear weapons during the Cold War, has also served as the site of meetings between heads of state, with Russian President Vladimir Putin inviting world leaders on board for talks. It also helped conduct peacetime scientific research with the U.S., according to The Associated Press.

The Moskva was involved in operations in the Black Sea during Russia's war in Georgia in 2008, and Al Jazeera reports that Georgian authorities say the ship took part in an attack on the country.

It later briefly participated in a blockade of the Ukrainian navy as part of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the following year it provided air defense for Russian forces operating in Syria.

Ukrainian officials say it's the same ship that gained renewed notoriety at the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine when its crew called on Ukrainian border troops defending strategic Snake Island to surrender — only to be memorably refused with profanity. (The troops were originally believed to have been killed but were actually taken captive and released in a prisoner swap in early March.)

The defiance at Snake Island has become a defining moment of the war and a rallying cry for Ukraine, which recently unveiled a commemorative postage stamp in the soldiers' honor.

The loss of the vessel is a win for Ukraine but won't devastate the Russian operation

The loss of the Moskva constitutes a major propaganda victory for Ukraine, especially given the vessel's perceived involvement in the Snake Island incident, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based think tank.

ISW says the ship's sinking provides a boon to Ukrainian morale as a symbol of Ukraine's capabilities to strike back at the Russian navy. And, on the other side, ISW says the Kremlin will struggle to explain what happened.

"Both explanations for the sinking of the Moskva indicate possible Russian deficiencies—either poor air defenses or incredibly lax safety procedures and damage control on the Black Sea Fleet's flagship," it said in an assessment on Thursday.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan made similar comments on Thursday, saying Russia's potential narratives are either that it came under attack or that it was incompetent, and neither offers a particularly good outcome.

But while the loss of the Moskva may be embarrassing for Russia, it's unlikely to significantly hurt its overall military operations.

The ship had the capacity to carry 16 long-range cruise missiles (as well as air defense missiles and other guns), so its absence will somewhat shrink Russia's firepower in the Black Sea. It had recently undergone an extensive refit to improve its capability and had returned to operational status only in 2021, the U.K. Ministry of Defence tweeted.

ISW says the loss of the Moskva is unlikely to "deal a decisive blow to Russian operations on the whole."

Still, that doesn't mean Russia won't change its strategy in light of the incident.

"Ukraine's possibly demonstrated ability to target Russian warships in the Black Sea may change Russian operating patterns, forcing them to either deploy additional air and point-defense assets to the Black Sea battlegroup or withdraw vessels from positions near the Ukrainian coast," ISW added.

Foggo, the retired admiral, said that the Moskva incident serves as a wake-up call that the war isn't taking place only on land. He added that if Ukrainians do actually have missiles like the Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles they claimed they used on Thursday, Russian forces are likely worried that any of their ships could be in jeopardy when they get close to the shoreline.

The Moskva joins a list of other Russian warships lost during conflict

News outlets had previously noted how significant Ukraine's claims would be, if verified.

Reuters had said that if Ukraine's claims of missile strikes were true, the attack on the Moskva could take its place as one of the highest-profile naval attacks of the century.

Citing military analysts, it reported that this would be the biggest Russian warship damaged by enemy fire since German dive bombers hit a Soviet battleship in Kronshtadt harbor in St. Petersburg in 1941.

And this wouldn't have been the first time that an onboard explosion took a flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet out of action — Reuters says the Imperatritsa Maria dreadnought battleship sank in 1916 after an explosion involving ammunition.

The AP reported that if Ukraine did in fact hit the cruiser with missiles, it likely represents the largest warship to be sunk in combat since a similarly sized cruiser was torpedoed by a British submarine in the 1982 Falklands War.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.