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.
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.
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?
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