The pride of Russia’s fearsome Black Sea fleet was taken out yesterday in one of the most cunning operations of the war.
Ukrainian commanders destroyed the huge Moskva warship by using drones to distract its defence systems and allowing surface-skimming missiles to strike.
The 12,500-ton cruiser’s protective sensors seemingly did not see the Neptune rockets heading its way because they were tracking Turkish TB2 drones.
Providing a massive boost to morale in Kyiv, and a huge blow to Vladimir Putin’s navy, two missiles slammed into the port side of the 611ft Moskva, rocking her violently and causing a catastrophic explosion and huge fires.
As flames lit up the stormy Black Sea, the ship’s 510 crewmen frantically climbed into lifeboats and fled.
The surprise attack took place at 2am yesterday as the Moskva, Russia’s main ‘command and control’ warship, was 60 miles south of Odessa
The surprise attack took place at 2am yesterday as the Moskva, Russia’s main ‘command and control’ warship, was 60 miles south of Odessa.
The ship’s captain and air defence officers were said to be tracking the decoy TB2s, unaware a pair of Ukrainian-made Neptune R360 anti-ship missiles were heading their way after being launched from an artillery battery on the coastline.
The missiles, each weighing a ton and with a range of 170 nautical miles, approached the Moskva at sea level. Travelling at such a low trajectory in rough seas meant they were difficult to track.
Last night, Western officials said Ukrainian reports of the operation were ‘credible’ and the attack demonstrated their ability to strike the Russians in areas where they assumed they were invulnerable.
One said: ‘The incident represents another enormous loss in terms of Russian credibility. They’ve been shown again to be vulnerable to attack.
‘This is a question of competence. This is supposed to be a military which has modernised itself over the last decade.
‘The Ukrainians have used their imagination and proved so resourceful. They are able to act on the fly to have an effect on Russian forces.’
Western officials also dismissed Russia’s excuses for the incident, after Moscow officials suggested there had merely been a fire aboard the Moskva, which led to the explosion of a large amount of ammunition.
The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet – the Soviet-era guided missile destroyer Moskva – was taken out yesterday after Ukraine shot it with two anti-ship cruise missiles
An official added: ‘I can’t definitively tell you exactly what happened. But I am not aware previously of a fire on board a capital warship, which would lead to the ammunition exploding.’
After the attack, the ageing cruiser – which first put to sea in 1979 – was initially towed towards Crimea. US intelligence said it was still on fire.
It was expected to be written off as Russian shipyards are unable to operate because of international sanctions. But last night the Russian defence ministry said the Moskva had in fact sunk ‘while being towed in a storm’, the state news agency Tass reported.
In terms of military hardware, the Moskva represents the largest single loss to Russia’s armed forces since the war began.
It is also understood to be one of the largest ships lost in combat since the Second World War. Her elimination is also highly symbolic for Ukraine, following an incident on day one of the war which summed up the ‘David and Goliath’ struggle.
On February 24, the Moskva, imposing both in size and armaments, approached Snake Island, a tiny feature off Ukraine’s southern coastline protected by just 13 troops.
When her captain demanded their surrender and threatened to bomb their positions if they did not put down their weapons, the Ukrainians famously radioed back: ‘Russian warship, go f*** yourself.’
Yesterday’s highly sophisticated sortie came just hours after the US acknowledged it was providing ‘direct intelligence support’ to enable precision targeting of Russian assets.
It was also the culmination of a lengthy intelligence gathering operation which, the Daily Mail has learned, revealed the ship was operating in what sources described as ‘predictable patterns’ in the north-west Black Sea and often without escorts.
It is customary for large cruisers, in particular flagships, to be accompanied by frigates which provide a protective screen.
But perhaps because they assumed they could operate with impunity, Russian commanders neglected to guard the Moskva. The incident is expected to make Russian naval commanders more wary when operating near Ukraine’s southern coastline.
Ukrainian commanders destroyed the huge Moskva warship by using drones to distract its defence systems and allowing surface-skimming missiles to strike after being fired from a secret location somewhere near Odesa (pictured, a test-fire of the Neptune missile takes place in 2019)
The Royal Navy has trained its Ukrainian counterparts in recent years to improve standards. But UK officials played down any suggestions Britain could be credited for the operation.
Ukraine designed and produced the Neptune missiles used in the attack. Ironically, it is based on a Russian design.
Last night, warship expert Jonathan Bentham, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: ‘Working on the assumption the Moskva was hit by anti-ship missiles, this raises questions about the operational capabilities of the Slava-class cruisers and the state of the wider Russian navy.
‘In theory, the ship’s anti-air defence capabilities should provide enough cover to avoid being hit by a subsonic missile like Neptune.
‘If the third-largest surface vessel in the fleet – behind the Admiral Kuznetsov and the Piotr Velikiy – is lacking these capabilities, what else is it lacking?’