LVIV, Ukraine — While Russia and Ukraine differed on the exact cause of the major explosion that sank a Russian battleship in the Black Sea on Thursday, the incident was a massive blow to the Kremlin’s pride and looked set to undermine the country’s naval operations in the region.
Ukrainian defense officials said their forces struck the Moskva, a cruiser, with two missiles. Russia said it was an internal munitions fire that forced the evacuation of the crew from its flagship in the Black Sea.
While Ukraine’s military claimed the Russian ship leading the blockade of the Black Sea had capsized and was “sinking,” Russia’s defense ministry insisted it was towing the Moskva to port. The ministry admitted later Thursday, however, that the ship did sink in choppy waters as it was being towed.
"Due to damage to the hull received during the fire caused by the detonation of ammunition, the ship lost stability," the ministry said in a statement. "The ship sank in a stormy sea.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC that the United States had confirmed an explosion on the vessel, but it was unable to confirm what had caused it. NBC News also has not verified what exactly occurred.
Either way, the damage to the Moskva was a “big blow to Russia,” Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Its loss is expected to have a major effect on Russia's naval ability going forward.
A Western official called the Moskva “an entirely legitimate target” and reiterated Sullivan’s sentiment in a briefing to reporters that was given under the condition of anonymity.
Its loss was a “massive blow for Russian credibility,” the official said, as it either showed that a ship with missile and air defense systems was vulnerable to attack or that the Russian military suffered a major accident. Either situation would put its competence in question.
Andrii Ryzhenko, a retired captain of the Ukrainian navy who served as the country’s assistant minister of defense until 2020, called the Moskva “an immense symbol,” as it has a long history in the Russian navy and shares its name with Moscow. He said its destruction was an “embarrassment” for the Russian military.
“She absolutely lost her ability to move and her energy supply and even partially sank, but not completely,” he said by telephone Thursday. “She’s currently afloat but significantly under the water. It seems the Russians are trying to tow her back to Sevastopol, but I don’t think there is any repair possible.”
Considering the amount of damage, he said, “it’s probably easier just to build a new ship.”
NBC News has not been able to verify his claims, but the Russian defense ministry later said the ship sank, which would leave Ryzhenko's recommendation as Russia's only option.
Ryzhenko said the Moskva was decades old and appeared to be somewhat outdated, but it remained a great power in the Black Sea.
It was an essential support and command vessel for Russia’s military operations on the coast as its forces maintained a blockade of Ukrainian vessels, he said, adding that it also supported land units.
The ship was a major force when Russia took Crimea in 2014 and in its war with Georgia in 2008, he said.
“It’s a shame for them because she was the most capable air defense platform, and she was killed only by two anti-ship missiles,” Ryzhenko said.
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute, echoed him regarding the significance of the loss of the Moskva.
Kaushal, an expert on sea power and maritime doctrine, said its absence from the Black Sea would mean Russia's entire naval force would be vulnerable to air attack.
Though Russia has comparable ships, Kaushal said, Turkey has closed the straits entering the Black Sea to “all belligerent warships,” meaning no other naval vessels can move into the theater in support.
“So what they have there, they have to fight with,” he said, explaining that the situation at sea is now riskier for Russia and opens up opportunities for Ukraine.
The war between Russia and Ukraine, however, is mainly on land, and that is where it is expected to be decided, he said.
Still, while the Moskva may not be a decisive victory, it has served as a significant boost to Ukrainian morale, he added.
Ryzhenko also noted that the ship was built in Ukraine’s southern city of Mykolaiv, when the country was under the control of the then-Soviet Union. The city of the Moskva’s origin has been repeatedly bombarded since Russia launched its invasion seven weeks ago.
That should serve as a lesson to Russia, Ryzhenko said.
“Don’t shell the place you were born,” he said. “But they did it, and they get this response.”
The Moskva is also the same ship that famously forced the surrender of Ukraine’s forces on Snake Island early in the invasion, according to Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych. Alleged video from the incident became a rallying cry.
The potential destruction of that ship is expected to be quite a boost to Ukraine’s morale and was celebrated widely in the country. That is unlikely to be the case in Russia.
Russia’s acknowledgment and the reasons it provided that the Moskva caught fire might also be considered a shameful moment for the Kremlin, Kaushal said.
“They have claimed that it was an ammunition loading failure, which doesn’t sound much better,” Kaushal said. “Either they were incompetent or they were hit — neither is a good thing, so it must be a blow for morale.”
This smack to Russian morale also comes as the country gears up for a major offensive in east Ukraine and the U.S. prepares to provide $800 million in weapons and other assistance for Ukraine’s defense.
Biden shared news of the package Wednesday after he discussed matters with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said he was “sincerely grateful for the support.”
Phil McCausland reported from Lviv, and Andrew Jones and Henry Austin from London.