KYIV, Ukraine — The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a missile cruiser that became a potential target of the Ukrainian challenge in the early days of the war, sank on Thursday after being heavily damaged in the latest setback of the invasion of Moscow.
Ukrainian officials said their forces hit the ship with missiles, while Russia acknowledged a fire aboard the Moskva but no attack. American and Western officials could not confirm the cause of the fire.
The loss of the warship named after the Russian capital is a devastating symbolic defeat for Moscow as its troops regroup for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine after withdrawing from much of the north , including the capital, Kyiv.
In his nightly video address to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to the sinking, telling Ukrainians they should be proud to have survived 50 days of attack while the Russians “gave us maximum five”.
Listing the many ways Ukraine defended itself against invasion, he noted “those that showed that Russian warships can get away, even if it’s on the bottom” of the sea. was his only reference to the missile cruiser.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the ship sank in a storm while being towed to port. Russia said earlier that flames on the ship, which would typically have 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate. Later he said the fire had been brought under control.
The Moskva had the capacity to carry 16 long-range cruise missiles, and its removal reduces Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea. It is also a blow to Moscow’s prestige in a war already widely seen as a historical mistake. Now entering its eighth week, the invasion has stalled in the face of resistance from Ukrainian fighters bolstered by weapons and other aid sent in by Western nations.
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During the early days of the war, the Moskva was reportedly the ship calling Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea to a standoff. In a widely played recording, a soldier replied, “Russian warship, go (expletive) yourself.
The Associated Press could not independently verify the incident, but Ukraine and its supporters consider it an iconic moment of defiance. The country recently unveiled a postage stamp commemorating him.
News of the flagship has eclipsed Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol, where Moscow forces have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the fiercest fighting of the war – to a horrible cost to civilians.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 1,026 Ukrainian soldiers went to a metallurgical plant in the city. But Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, dismissed that claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle for the seaport is still going on today.”
It was not known how many forces were still defending Mariupol.
Russian state television broadcast footage it said came from Mariupol showing dozens of men in camouflage uniforms walking with their hands in the air and carrying others on stretchers. A man held a white flag.
Mariupol was the scene of the worst suffering of the war. A dwindling number of Ukrainian defenders are resisting a siege that has trapped more than 100,000 civilians in desperate need of food, water and heat. David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, told AP in an interview on Thursday that people are “starving” in the besieged city.
The mayor of Mariupol said this week that more than 10,000 civilians had died and the death toll could exceed 20,000, after weeks of attacks and deprivation that left bodies “lurking in the streets”.
The capture of Mariupol is crucial for Russia because it would allow its southern forces, which were crossing the annexed Crimean peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the Donbass region, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine and the target of the coming offensive.
A Russian sailor salutes at the bow of the Moskva missile cruiser in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 30, 2014.
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File
The Russian military continues to move helicopters and other equipment together for such an effort, according to a senior US defense official, and it will likely add more ground combat units “in the coming days”. But it is still unclear when Russia might launch a bigger offensive in Donbass.
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine in the Donbass since 2014, the same year Russia seized Crimea. Russia has recognized the independence of the rebel regions of Donbass.
The loss of Moskva could delay any further large-scale offensive.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odessa region across the Black Sea northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians hit the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage”.
The Russian Defense Ministry said ammunition on board exploded as a result of a fire, without specifying the cause of the fire. He said the “main missile weapons” were undamaged. In addition to cruise missiles, the warship also had air defense missiles and other guns.
The Neptune is an anti-ship missile that was recently developed by Ukraine and based on an earlier Soviet design. The launchers are mounted on trucks parked near the coast and, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the missiles can hit targets up to 280 kilometers (175 miles) away. This would have put the Moskva within range, depending on where it was when the fire started.
Launched as Slava in 1979, the cruiser served in the Cold War and during the conflicts in Georgia and Syria, and helped conduct scientific research in peacetime with the United States. During the Cold War, it carried nuclear weapons.
In 1989 the Slava was supposed to host a meeting off Malta between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George HW Bush, but high winds shifted the talks to the docked cruiser Maxim Gorky.
Other Russian ships that were also in the northern Black Sea moved further south after the Moskva fire on Thursday, said a senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. to discuss internal military evaluations.
Before the Moskva sinking, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told AP his withdrawal would mean “we can only breathe a sigh of relief.”
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Although the United States was unable to confirm Ukraine’s claims that the warship was hit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called it “a blow for Russia”.
“They kind of had to choose between two stories: one story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they were attacked, and neither is a particularly good outcome for them.” , Sullivan told the Economic Club of Washington. .
Russia invaded on February 24 and lost potentially thousands of fighters. The conflict has killed countless Ukrainian civilians and forced millions more to flee.
It also further inflated prices at grocery stores and gas pumps, while dampening the global economy. The head of the International Monetary Fund said on Thursday that the war had prompted the organization to revise economic forecasts for 143 countries downwards.
Also on Thursday, Russian authorities accused Ukraine of sending two low-flying military helicopters some 11 kilometers across the border and firing at residential buildings in the village of Klimovo, in the Bryansk region of Russia. The Russian Investigative Committee said seven people, including a toddler, were injured.
Russia’s state security service earlier said Ukrainian forces fired mortar shells at a border crossing in Bryansk as refugees crossed, forcing them to flee.
The reports could not be independently verified. Earlier this month, Ukrainian security officials denied that kyiv was behind an airstrike on an oil depot in the Russian town of Belgorod, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) from the border.
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