The Ill Fated Moskva


Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the IPCS Web Journal

At the beginning of Russian combat operations in Ukraine in late February 2022, Kremlin had delivered an ultimatum while massing forces on Ukraine’s borders: either Moscow would be given iron-clad assurances that Ukraine would never join NATO, or it would take military action. In fact, the 2022 war in Ukraine is the culmination of a decade of clashes pitting Ukrainian aspirations against Russian security anxieties. These tensions first broke out into an armed conflict in 2014 in the wake of mass Ukrainian insurgency aided by western artifices that toppled the then “democratically” elected regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia annexed Crimea and appropriated the naval base at Sevastopol. It also set into motion an insurgency in the east to bring under its fold the ethnically kindred regions of Luhansk and the Donbas.

The situation in the Black Sea during the period preceding the “special military operations” was marked by three significant factors. First, the modernising of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which followed annexation of Crimea and the appropriation of the former main naval base at Sevastopol, it rejuvenated the fleet which had seen neglect, deprivation and distress for three decades post collapse of the USSR. By 2019 the resurgence of the Fleet was apparent when the force capability was designated to meet tasks of “maritime dominance and Sea Control”. Second, Turkey had prohibited transit of belligerent warships through the Straits. And third the challenge of NATO’s eastward expansion.

The Incident

A heavy cruiser of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the ‘Slava’ class missile cruiser,  Moskva, sank at 1852h local time on 14 April 2022 in position 45°10′43.39″N 30°55′30.54″E, about 80 nautical miles south of Odessa and around 50 nm from the Ukrainian coast, after being “seriously damaged.” That is as far as one can establish from reportage thus far of the matter. What caused the sinking, circumstances of the episode, or even the events leading to the catastrophe remain mired in fact-distorting partisan narratives.

Conflicting Accounts

The Russian defence ministry said ammunition on board exploded in an unexplained fire and the Moskva capsized under tow back to its base port at Sevastopol. Ukraine claims it struck the vessel with a salvo of two “Neptun” surface-to-surface missiles while the USA/NATO sources have put out a version to credit the episode to targetting  intelligence  passed on to Ukraine coast defence forces, this has been roundly denied by the Pentagon.

If indeed the Russian variant of events is to be believed then it speaks of either poor maintenance of on board damage prevention systems or of dismal crew competence. This deduction is founded on the norm that a warship puts to sea on a combat mission only if both man and machine are hazard-free; notwithstanding the ship’s “maturity” (Moskva was over 40 years old). Besides, what was the Moskva doing within missile range? If the Ukrainian recital is to be accepted, then why were follow-on salvos not launched, after all the fire control solution was at hand, target had been ‘crippled’ and escorts were in the vicinity? As far as US/NATO targeting data is concerned, this would have had to have been persistent using interoperable data link; at which time the question begs to be asked, why were more Russian warships not targeted?

Operational Situation

The operational situation in the northern Black Sea during the weeks preceding the sinking of the Moskva was as mentioned earlier marked by three factors. First, the modernising of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which followed annexation of Crimea and the appropriation of the former main naval base at Sevastopol, it rejuvenated the fleet which had seen neglect, deprivation and distress for three decades post collapse of the USSR. By 2019 the resurgence of the Fleet was apparent when the force capability was designated to meet tasks of “maritime dominance in the Black Sea, Sea Control and “counter-naval” operations.

Ukraine, on the other hand, anticipating the looming conflict, had resorted to defensive mining of the approaches to their main ports of Odessa, Ochakov, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny with around 420 vintage moored mines. It is reported that stormy sea conditions had set some of these adrift and freewheeled them to the south and western parts of the Black Sea.  By end-March, however, Ukrainian surface forces, coastal defence and naval aviation had been decimated, major ports blockaded and  Russia had established partial Sea Control in the Northern Black Sea.

Second, Turkey had imposed article 19 of the Montreux Convention that prohibits belligerent warships from transit through the straits. From an unsentimental angle, this placed the Straits under Turkish and therefore de-facto NATO control; unless Russia chose to militarily challenge the Convention. In the current situation, the Turkish government finds itself in a ticklish strategic situation, as both Ukraine and Russia are important partners in economic, energy and military agreements. Being a member of NATO, upsetting Russia over the Straits may well suck it into direct conflict if it does not succeed in a balancing act that threatens a teetering order.

Third, the challenge of an enlarging NATO and the consequent shrinkage in influence of the Russian State has been a source of considerable chagrin to the Kremlin. One of Russia’s seething demands has been for NATO to stop expanding eastward as it brought the “line-of-discord” to Russia’s door-step. The current standoff between Russia and NATO has been vitiated by the narrative of Western betrayal of not (debatably) upholding the promises made in 1990. And yet, Ukraine coming in the wake of Chechnya, Armenia and Georgia, there is that unmistakable reminder that Moscow retains a dominion perception of power.


              The facts of the incident have not quite emerged; in the circumstance, to stitch together an account based on available media reports is at times contrary and at others, partisan. But as mentioned earlier the fact is, the Moskva capsized under tow and sank. An attempt is now made to fathom the incident based on derivations from available (indisputable) premises.

On 14 April 2022, the Moskva sank 80nm South of Odessa and 50nm East of the Ukrainian coast (see chart 1) and lay on the Odessa Shelf. Soundings in the area are between 50 to 100 metres. Being the flag ship of the Fleet, it may be assumed from the operational situation, that she was the designated Commander of the Russian blockading force deployed north of the line joining Sevastopol and the captured Zmiiniy (Snake) Island . That, the Moskva was operating within 50nm off the Ukrainian coast, would suggest that the Russian Command had either ruled out the threat to the blockading force from Ukrainian cruise missiles or had complete confidence in their ability to suppress enemy surveillance and control systems. It would appear the Russian forces did not, for some reason, even consider the possibility of targeting data coming from any other source. It is equally curious that contradictory media reports continue to emerge of US involvement in targeting despite Pentagon’s denial.


Cruise missiles such as the “Neptune” are offshoots of the Russian Kh 35 or what is still in service in the Indian Navy, the “Uran” system. The missile cruises at sub-sonic speeds, but after lock-on target is achieved it may manoeuvre or boost speed. Their tolerance for un-factored target movement at any cognizable speed is limited; therefore the requirement for continuous target data to generate vectors “Along and Across the-line-of-fire”.

Commercial satellites systems may be used for the initial search of shipping, however for tracking and targeting high end military grade precision systems would have to be paired. This is critical to solve the fire control problem and establish any semblance of precision launch. Therefore, the suggestion of an alternate military targeting source.  Although it is known that Ukraine operates the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAV, it is dependent on tactical data link for networking, which theoretically allows for linkage with in-area USN/NATO maritime patrol aircraft and thereafter for targeting by shore based anti-ship missile units.

Whether NATO would have exploited the situation in such direct manner and risked a hot face off with Russia is the moot question. Besides, the Kremlin not having shown any reaction to the possibility of direct US/NATO involvement questions the validity of the proposition. Could the Moskva have challenged such a cooperative encounter, it certainly had the wherewithal and yet it did not. The question arises why not? There is of course the possibility of existence of tacit understanding between Russia and the USA of the limits of engagement.

A Clouded Conclusion

Maritime savvy dictates that in potentially hostile waters the most valuable warship be protected. If the Moskva was the Blockade Commander or indeed deployed to provide command and control, air-defence and anti-surface protection to the force, then it would have had a defensive surveillance and strike screen. Under these conditions it is not at all clear as to how the ship  was attacked and why there was no response? Unless the engagement was orchestrated by US/NATO forces, or the hapless ship ran into a mine or verily succumbed to a catastrophic accident.

Pope Francis’ macro-perspective of the conflict bears an irresistible logic that may provide insight into the fate of the Moskva, he said “We do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps, somehow either provoked or not prevented”.

Chart 1 The Northern Black Sea Theatre

The Challenge of a Multi-Polar Nuclear Age


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The article has been published in the IPCS Web Journal in the authors column The Strategist and is available at

Of Parity, Assured Destruction & Mistrust

For the last 77 years, since the USA first detonated nuclear weapons and annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an eerie ambivalence has prevailed concerning their use. On the one hand some scholars and practitioners are convinced of the myth of usable nuclear weapons; while on the other, governments are devising policies for use . In the meanwhile, Russia toys with the idea of escalating to nuclear warfare in order to de-escalate on-going conflict; while China designs a strategy to provide greater flexibility in the use of nuclear forces.

Significantly, the first nuclear attacks also defined the basis of nuclear stability. Relationship between bellicose nuclear armed states was marked by three characteristics: quest for parity in arsenals, certitude of mutual destruction and a bizarre level of mistrust that drove states to adopt grotesque stratagems. Just how abominable nuclear war plans could be was pointed out by Noam Chomsky (the renowned pacifist). US nuclear posture, he said, called “for the delivery of 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in Russia, China, and allied countries,” all together impervious to the fact that nuclear weapons destroyed political purpose. General Butler, a former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command put it succinctly when he renounced the current nuclear programs and systems as a death warrant for humanity.

 Flawed New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed 08 April, 2010, by the US and Russia. The instrument was a continuum of a bipartisan process to reduce nuclear arsenals. The two parties agreed in 2021, to extend the Treaty by five years. The key provision of the agreement limits nuclear warheads, delivery vectors and launchers and institutes a system of verification.

The Accord is, however, amiss both conceptually and in its substance. Conceptually it is neither inclusive of all nuclear armed states nor does it identify “mistrust” as a key factor that stokes scepticism. While in substance it fails to recognise that all nuclear weapons, including tactical, are weapons in the same category; for when used they have the potential to escalate to mass destruction. In addition it pays no heed to the fact that warheads held in reserve can very quickly be deployed. But where the treaty is fatally flawed is its inability to institute measures that diminish intent “to-use” by demanding all nuclear armed nations to abjure “First Use” of nuclear weapons as an essential doctrinal-point that allays perils of nuclear devastation.

Nuclear Weapons an Umbrella for Conventional War

Just how consequential this last consideration can be has been demonstrated In the course of the Ukraine conflict. Russia has obliquely threatened use of nuclear weapons to provide an umbrella for its war. This has turned the Cold-War idea of deterrence on its head as Moscow uses the deterrence value of its nuclear arsenal not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. The Kremlin introduced an explicit nuclear dimension through its various declarations. On 18 February 2022, Russia conducted manoeuvres of its nuclear forces prior incursion into Ukraine. The event left little doubt that choice of timing was linked to the impending crisis. On 24 February, Moscow warned NATO in a declaration that there would be unprecedented consequences should a third state attempt to “obstruct” Russia’s designs. The Russian president went further on 27 February, announcing that Russia’s nuclear forces had been placed on “special alert”. Such public announcement regarding nuclear forces was last proclaimed by the United States during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later noted, cryptically, that a third world war would be “nuclear”.

The Bluff of Extended Deterrence

In this milieu, the very idea of “extended nuclear deterrence” takes an outlandish turn. The logic of guarantee against a nuclear attack on a third nation implies that the guarantor launch a retaliatory nuclear strike and accept the consequences irrespective of circumstance, extent of convergence of interests or degree of mutuality. This, as recent events in Ukraine has exposed, is not rational.

Extended nuclear deterrence demands both guarantor and beneficiary accept the same conditions of nuclear use, magnitude of response, norms for escalation and share the same strategic interests. Since none of these propositions are indubitable, the substance of extended nuclear deterrence is ultimately dependent on the guarantor accepting catastrophic consequences on behalf of a third party. Nations under this canopy might want to re-consider the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in the contemporary strategic circumstance. Reliance on the nuclear deterrent capabilities of a major power is much more an “act of clutching at a straw” than a reflection of reality. This is the dilemma of extended nuclear deterrence.

Prospects of Nuclear Stability – A Revisit

Many factors that deterred military conflict during the Cold War and after have weakened. The growing parity of arsenal, absence of moderating pressures and power imbalances between states have exposed the underlying stresses within the global system and increased the probability of conflict.

Russia’s case is symptomatic of the current anarchic state of affairs. Having lost its economic, technological, and political heft of the Soviet era; it retains great power aspirations, demands exceptionalism and clings to nuclear superpower status. Its nuclear arsenal is a key component of leverage, for it endows immunity from military pressure and the leeway to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Nuclear deterrence today can only work in conjunction with agreements, limitations and transparency. Without which, it brings antagonistic powers to the brink of nuclear war in a crisis. In the present fragile condition of deterrent relationships the prospects of nuclear stability amongst the nine nuclear armed nations will remain forlorn.

The Challenge

Cold-War nuclear paradigms can no further be tweaked to provide an illusion of stability to the nine nuclear armed states. Priority should be given to identifying methods to dispel ‘mistrust’, while advancing the idea that globally, nuclear surety is neither served by ‘parity’ in arsenals nor ‘assurance’ of total devastation. The former has brought into play a multi-polar encore of an arms race, while the latter is a return to barbaric times when extinction was propagated as a solution.

Global affairs of-the-day is a paradox. Economics and interdependence are the engines of power and yet there is reluctance to step back from military situations such as what we see in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons cannot be reduced to a gamblers game of “dare”. But to remove it from arsenals is neither practicable nor are nations ready to wean themselves from an instrument of power that nurtured them. The answer lies in transparency shadowed by withdrawal from this calamitous obsession through a general adoption of a policy of ‘No-First-Use’ of nuclear weapons. This is a first step towards disarmament.

Power Paradigms & the Vexed Path to Peace in Ukraine


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal on theauthors site “The Strategistavailable at

The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned   security imbalances on account of economic inequities, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy, which in Ukraine has distorted into conflict. The twentieth century mass violence of the two World Wars was caused by these very imbalances. It gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ distinguished by bi-polar tensions in Europe and the Cold War. It did not by any means provide the same rude comfort in the other continents. Demise of the Cold War in 1991, ushered in two decades of an unrestrained militaristic unipolar world order before a return to a complex agglomeration of multipolar powers of the day.

The early 20th century multi-polar power distribution was different. The context was a world of imperial powers, colonies and a debased system that served the interests of the prevailing hegemon. The primary actors were from Europe, the USA and Japan. In contrast, the contemporary world is notable by an array of interdependent actors critical in domains that go beyond the military.

There is a view that believes bi-polarity assured a modicum of security, guaranteed by the two superpowers. Wars fought between 1945-89 and onwards, however, rubbish such an analysis. Given intensity and casualties; occurrences of war tell a different story. Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, 236 wars were fought; while 147 were battled from 1990 to 2020. These statistics hardly suggest that the Cold War set into motion a pacific period in geo-politics. Clearly, peace is not entirely a function of power distribution.

The path to peace, another school of thought holds, is through economic cooperation. This assumes that each state big or small plays a role in the global economic system. In theory, such a circumstance makes upholding security and sovereignty of the state a collective responsibility. Unfortunately, competition for security and the absence of acceptable rules for partnership makes economic cooperation abstruse. The barrage of economic sanctions that the West have levied on Russia for the military onslaught on Ukraine, Russia’s counter injunctions and their impact tell exactly how complex economic relations can be.

When the state is weak, economic activity can be threatened by more powerful states that seek strategic advantage and internally, by self-seeking elements. So peace cannot just be a function of cooperative economics. The case of South Sudan, suggests that weakness of a nation is doggedly enduring and does not invite peace.

An examination of the three power paradigm considered thus far, presents a rather perplexing perspective of the larger consequences of dispersion or concentration of power. There is no convincing argument as to which of the systems is conducive for a more stable world. With the caveat that any prescription must account for the nature of power and its distribution.

A core principle of international stability after World War II is that nations have a right to self-determination, and borders are inviolable. Yet, Russia, transgressed this belief, when in, 2014 it annexed parts of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula and in February 2022, invaded Ukraine on grounds of ethnic conformity and strategic security demanding creation of a defensive bulwark against an eastward advancing NATO.

The challenge to the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the Putin Doctrine . Driven by a vision of reversal of the fallout of collapse of the Soviet Union; Russia considers the use of force as appropriate when its security is threatened. Its primary purpose is the rejection of a western conceived global order and acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.

Digging deeper, it is discernible that the “contemporary multi-polar power” exemplar has in many ways set into motion the events leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

 The crisis is a test case of whether democratic institutions will stick-by their principles. While autocratic dispensations, view the rapidly changing events with an eye on how resolutely the West upholds its security structures. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is under the scanner. Beijing, in particular, will be roused as it formulates plans to invade Taiwan, consolidate claims in the South China Sea and stirs its aggressive design in Ladakh.  At stake is international order and its systems of superintendence. That being as it may, potential aggressors must be deterred by an idea; that of abhorrence of geographic subjugation. The tragedy of the times is that grand principles neither usher peace nor do they challenge realpolitik.

The road to peace perhaps begins with an acceptance of realities and then attempts a harmonious amalgam of principles. The idea that peace is kindred to democracy is a vision in international relations that some may, rule out as Quixotic. Events in Ukraine advance the thought that democracies are as susceptible to war hysteria as authoritarian states. While each side spins its own self-indulgent narrative that justifies conflict, what suffers is the very idea of global interdependence.

There is, therefore, a need for profound institutional reconstitution. Current systems, in the main, respond to a past driven by self-interests and balance of power. However, global concerns and realities such as the pandemic and indeed the impact of conflicts on world-wide economic networks make individual survival and prosperity a collective function. The necessity is therefore for universal policies that inspire stability and have regional expression that makes security of the smallest a shared responsibility. These are not prescriptions but principles that must guide action.

The UN is seen as even more toothless today than it was during the pandemic. It is hopelessly impotent when a major power is involved, therefore not only must its security architecture be remodelled to expand permanent membership of the Security Council, but the intervention of a peace keeping force or a negotiating body must be mandatory at first indication of armed conflict.

During the Cold-War, nuclear deterrence is credited for preventing conflict between the super-powers. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a harsh light on how the idea has been turned on its head. Most obvious is that Moscow is using nuclear deterrence not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. NATO’s nuclear weapons deter Russia from engaging in a wider European conflict but leaves Ukraine in a hopeless war (See Map 1).

So why does NATO provide weapons without committing heavy arms, air defence or troops in defence of Ukraine? Is it to prolong the conflict and make Ukraine a testing ground for doctrines and hardware? After all, NATO is aware that to engage Russia in direct conflict will signal the start of World War III, so why not take bolder steps to encourage negotiations? 

For the present peace is a far cry, it would appear the EU and NATO is determined to fight to the last Ukrainian.

Map 1. Progress of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine