KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a guided missile cruiser that became a potent target for Ukrainian despite the start of the war, sank on Thursday after being severely damaged in the recent setback for the Moscow invasion.
Ukrainian officials said their forces hit the vessel with missiles, while Russia acknowledged a fire aboard Moscow but no attack. U.S. and other Western officials could not confirm what caused the fire.
The loss of the warship named after the Russian capital is a devastating symbolic defeat for Moscow as its troops gather for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine after withdrawing from large parts of the north, including the capital Kiev.
In his nightly video speech to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to the shipwreck when he told the Ukrainians that they should be proud to have survived 50 days under attack when the Russians “gave us no more than five.”
Listing the many ways Ukraine has defended against the invasion, he noted “those who showed that Russian warships can sail away, even if it is to the bottom” of the sea. It was his only reference to the missile cruiser.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the ship sank in a storm while being towed to a port. Russia said earlier that the flames on the ship, which typically wanted 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate. Later it said the fire had been fought.
Moscow 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 that is already widely regarded as a historic blunder.. Now entering its eighth week, the invasion has stalled due to resistance from Ukrainian fighters backed by weapons and other aid sent by Western nations.
During the early days of the war, Moscow was reportedly the ship that urged Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea to surrender in a standoff. In a widespread recording, a soldier replied, “Russian warship, go (pronounced) yourself.”
The Associated Press could not independently confirm the incident, but Ukraine and its supporters view it as an iconic moment of defiance. The country recently unveiled a stamp commemorating it.
The news of the flagship overshadowed Russian claims of progress in the southern port city of Mariupol, where Moscow’s forces have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the war’s toughest battles – at a terrible price for civilians..
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 1,026 Ukrainian troops had surrendered at a metal factory in the city. But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, dismissed the claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle for the port is still going on today.”
It was unclear how many forces were still defending Mariupol.
Russian state television broadcast footage that it said was from Mariupol, showing dozens of men in camouflage walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers. A man was holding a white flag.
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. A dwindling number of Ukrainian defenders are holding out against a siege that has captured well over 100,000 civilians in desperate need of food, water and heat. David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Program, told the AP in an interview Thursday that people are being “starved to death” in the besieged city.
Mariupol’s mayor said this week that more than 10,000 civilians had been killed and the death toll could exceed 20,000, after weeks of attacks and deprivation left corpses “carpet through the streets.”
Mariupol’s capture is critical of Russia because it would allow its forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean peninsula, to fully connect with troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, and the target of the coming offensive.
The Russian military continues to move helicopters and other equipment together for such an effort, according to a senior U.S. defense officer, and it is likely to add more combat units to the ground “in the coming days.” But it is still unclear when Russia may launch a major offensive in the Donbas.
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine in the Donbas since 2014, the same year that Russia conquered Crimea. Russia has recognized independence of the rebel regions of the Donbas.
The loss of Moscow could delay any new, far-reaching offensive.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region, across the Black Sea northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians hit the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the fire. It said the “main missile weapons” were not damaged. In addition to the cruise missiles, the warship also had air defense missiles and other cannons.
Neptune is an anti-ship missile recently developed by Ukraine and based on a former Soviet design. The launch pads are mounted on trucks stationed 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. It would have put Moscow within reach, based on where it was when the fire started.
Launched as Slava in 1979, the cruiser served in the Cold War and during conflicts in Georgia and Syria, and helped conduct peacetime scientific research with the United States. During the Cold War, it carried nuclear weapons.
In 1989, Slava was to host a meeting off Malta between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George HW Bush, but stormy winds moved negotiations to anchored cruiser Maxim Gorky.
On Thursday, other Russian ships, also in the northern Black Sea, moved further south after Moscow caught fire, a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments.
Before Moscow sank, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, told the Associated Press that its removal would mean “we can only get a sigh of relief.”
While the United States was unable to confirm Ukraine’s claims of attacking the warship, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called it “a major blow to Russia.”
“They have had to choose between two stories: one story is that it was just incompetence and the other was that they came under attack, and that is not a very good result for them either,” Sullivan told Economic Club of Washington. .
Russia invaded on February 24 and has potentially lost thousands of fighters. The conflict has killed countless Ukrainian civilians and forced millions to flee.
It has also further increased prices in grocery stores and petrol pumps while pulling on the global economy. The head of the International Monetary Fund said on Thursday that the war helped pressure the organization to downgrade economic forecasts for 143 countries.
Also on Thursday, Russian authorities accused Ukraine of sending two low-flying military helicopters about 11 kilometers (7 miles) across the border and firing at residential buildings in the village of Klimovo in Russia’s Bryansk region. Russia’s investigative committee said seven people, including a small child, were injured.
Russia’s state security service had previously said Ukrainian forces fired mortar rounds at a border post in Bryansk as refugees crossed, forcing them to flee.
The reports could not be independently verified. Earlier this month, Ukrainian security officials denied that Kiev was behind an airstrike on an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) from the border.
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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