What Ukrainian Missile? Could the 40 Year Old Russian Cruiser Moskva Have Sunk By Itself

The sinking of the Russian Slava Class missile cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea on April 14 represented one of the biggest losses any Navy has suffered since the 1940s and the biggest single loss for Russia in a war zone since the Second World War. The Russian Defence Ministry reported a fire aboard the ship, subsequently the containment of this fire, and then the sinking of the ship in a storm before it had returned to port. While Ukrainian and Western analysts we are quick to attribute the sinking to a Ukrainian strike by two derivatives of the Soviet Kh-35 cruise missile, however, the possibility remains that the Russian ship may have sunk by itself. Which of these possibilities would have worse implications for the Russian Navy remains uncertain. A number of factors make the Russian cruiser’s sinking through an accident rather than a missile strike plausible, with these increasingly raised by analysts after the ship's loss was confirmed. The cruiser is the oldest of its class commission 40 years ago in 1982, and like many of the vessels inherited from the Soviet era and surviving the severe neglect of the 1990s the Moskva was in far from pristine condition. Indeed the ship was set to be scrapped in the 1990s with only an intervention by the mayor of Moscow, the ship’s namesake, preventing this. The subsequent overhaul to the ship primarily included removing rust and re-applying paint rather than actually improving its performance, with many systems still non-operational years later. While the Soviet Union as the world's second largest economy was expected to be able to sustain a very large surface fleet including over a dozen cruisers, post-Soviet Russia after its economic collapse in the 1990s struggled with even a much smaller number.

Russian cruisers and destroyers today all date back to the Soviet era, with the Navy no longer building such ships and instead focusing on lighter frigate and corvette sized vessels. As such the Navy has often had little choice but to keep ageing and often only semi functional ships in service to preserve a semblance of high endurance power projection capabilities. As demonstrated in Syria, however, the bulk of the Navy’s contribution to combat operations came from modern submarines, frigates and corvettes armed with advanced cruise missiles many of which were a small fraction of the size of a cruiser. The age of the Slava Class design not only means it is more worn out, but also less stealthy and more significantly less safe and comfortable for crew than modern designs.

The Moskva was very heavily armed with guns, close in weapons systems, torpedoes, massive P-1000 cruise missiles and multiple sets of surface to air missiles which left significant room for a fire or other accident to quickly get out of control. The result, much like the well known case of British battleships in the First World War, was a ship prone to exploding when taking even relatively minor hits through a chain reaction, and potentially even exploding due to a fire or other accident onboard. It may will never be known for certain what sank the Moskva, with Western and Ukrainian sources having a strong interest in crediting a missile strike while Russia may seek to conceal the fact that it was lost to enemy action if that was the case. Whatever caused the incident, however, may cause Russia to reevaluate the continued viability of its heavyweight surface ships inherited from the Soviet Union and reconsider how it will design potential successors should these ever become financially viable.

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