Initially christened the Slava, or “glory,” the warship now known as the Moskva in honor of the Russian capital has served in the Cold War, peacetime cooperation with the US and conflicts in Syria and Georgia.
Now, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is a focus of Russia’s war with Ukraine — where it was built — in the latest chapter for a storied vessel that has been buffeted by the winds of change from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to Russian President Vladimir Putin .
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WARSHIP?
Russia said a fire broke out aboard the Moskva, badly damaging it, and all the sailors were evacuated, with the ship being towed to its port. It denied there was an attack on the ship, which would normally have about 500 sailors aboard, and that its guided missile launchers were intact.
Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odessa region, said Ukraine struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said the ship sank. But Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, later said he was unable to confirm it was sunk or even hit by Ukrainian forces.
It was not immediately possible to reconcile the vastly different accounts, and cloud cover made it impossible to locate the ship or determine its condition based on satellite photos.
The Moskva was about 69 miles (100 to 104 kilometers) due south of Odesa when the fire occurred, according to a senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US military assessments.
WHAT IS THE WARSHIP’S CAPABILITY?
The Moskva can carry 16 long-range cruise missiles. Its removal from combat would greatly reduce Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea.
Any attack on the Moskva would represent a major blow to Russian prestige from Ukraine seven weeks into a war that is already widely seen as a historic blunder.
WHAT IS ITS HISTORY?
It was launched as the Slava from a shipyard in Mykolaiv in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine in July 1979, according to open-source intelligence firm Janes. Commissioned in late December 1982, she was 611.5 feet (186 meters) long. She it was designed to carry a crew of 476 with an additional 62 officers.
The Slava served as the flagship of the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea. It carried both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, deck guns, torpedoes and mortars. She also had a helicopter deck.
During the Cold War, it also carried nuclear weapons. In 1989, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, US and Soviet scientists took part in a joint test abroad the Slava in the Black Sea to measure the emission of neutrons and gamma rays from a nuclear warhead on a cruise missile.
In late 1989, the Slava was supposed to host a meeting off Malta between Gorbachev and then-President George HW Bush, but gale force winds prompted the Soviet-hosted side of the talks to be held instead on the docked cruiser Maxim Gorky.
FROM SLAVA TO MOSKVA
The Slava underwent repairs from 1990-1999. During that time, the Soviet Union collapsed, an independent Ukraine emerged and Russia’s economy founded. Finally overhauled and rechristened the Moskva, the ship hosted both Putin and then-Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi during a 2003 visit to Sardinia.
“Thank God, our cruisers can still go on their own, our plans and missiles can fly,” Putin said at the time.
Putin’s later comments at the La Maddalena naval base show how much has changed. He described the Moskva’s presence as a sign that “the level of trust between Russia and the NATO countries is rising.” NATO’s eastward expansion and Russian security were among the reasons Putin cited for sending troops to Ukraine.
During Russia’s war in its former republic of Georgia in 2008, the Moskva took part in operations in the Black Sea, and Georgia said it was involved in an attack on the country.
In 2014, as Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the Moskva blocked Ukrainian naval vessels from leaving Lake Donuzlav.
In 2015-16, it was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to provide support for the Russian military campaign backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war. Its sailors were decorated for their service there and in the war on Georgia.
The Moskva underwent repairs and modernization from 2018 to July 2020, according to Janes.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Moskva took part in an attack on Zmiinyi — or Snake — Island, which sits about 35 kilometers (21 miles) off the country’s coast. In an audio widely circulated online, a Ukrainian soldier responds: “Russian warship, go (expletive) yourself.”
The Associated Press cannot independently verify the incident, but Ukraine and its supporters consider it an iconic moment of defiance.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Instagram account posted a photo of him holding commemorative stamps marking the purported moment. They show a lone Ukrainian soldier on a beach, rifle in one hand, the other giving the middle finger to the passing Moskva, its “121” ship number visible on it.
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