Russian Black Sea flagship that attacked Snake Island sinks after blast

The Black Sea Fleet Flagship, the Moskva, was destroyed in a fire that Ukraine claims was caused by two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles.

 Russian Navy vessels are anchored in a bay of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea May 8, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER/FILE PHOTO)
Russian Navy vessels are anchored in a bay of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea May 8, 2014

Russia said on Thursday the flagship of its Black Sea fleet sank after being seriously damaged following an explosion that a Ukrainian official said was the result of a missile strike.

The Black Sea Fleet Flagship, the Atlant-class guided missile cruiser Moskva, was one of the two ships that seized Snake Island on February 25, in the now famous incident in which Ukrainian border guards told Russian naval forces ,"Russian warship, f***k you...!" when told to surrender.

Fire on the Moskva

Russia's defense ministry said a fire on the Moskva caused ammunition to blow up, Interfax news agency reported. It did not say what caused the fire, and that it was "under investigation." Later on Thursday, TASS reported that Russian Defense sources had said that the fire on the vessel had been contained, though Russia's Defense Ministry announced that it sank as it was being towed back to port late Thursday evening.

Maksym Marchenko, the Ukrainian governor of the region around the Black Sea port of Odesa, said the Moskva had been hit by two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles.

"Neptune missiles guarding the Black Sea caused very serious damage," he said in an online post.

Ukraine's defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment and Reuters was unable to verify either side's claims.

The war in the Black Sea

According to retired US Defense Department civil servant Trent Telenko, the Moskva acted as a major a air defense asset in the region, carrying multiple surface-to-air missiles for its S-300 air defense system. He asserted that the destruction of the Moskva will allow Ukrainian air forces to expand operations in the area, and may help in Ukrainian pushes toward the strategic port of Kherson. Kherson is the only major Ukrainian city captured during the war, and controls access to the delta of the Dnieper river that bisects Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military claims to have incapacitated or destroyed 7 ships other than the Moskva. The Black Sea Fleet flagship is the second major ship known to have suffered serious damage since the start of the war. Last month Ukraine said it had destroyed an Alligator-class landing support ship, the Saratovas it was docked in the occupied Ukrainian port of Berdyansk. 

On March 24 the Ukrainian military fired a ballistic missile at the landing crafts, according to Brigadier General Kirill Budanov to Coffee or Die magazine when fuel and ammunition trucks had approached the landing site. Dramatic footage shows the destroyed Saratov burning, engulfing the port in black smoke. Two other damaged vessels are seen navigating away from the site.

Russian news agencies said the Moskva, commissioned in 1982 as the Slava, is armed with 16 anti-ship Vulkan cruise missiles with a range of at least 700 km (440 miles). Russia's navy has launched cruise missiles into Ukraine and its activities in the Black Sea are crucial to supporting land operations in the south of the country, where it is battling to seize full control of the port of Mariupol. The Black Sea Fleet has also been bombarding Odesa, and making preparations for amphibious assault of the city, according to western and Ukrainian intelligence reports.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently promised to supply Ukraine with new anti-ship missiles.

Snake Island revisited

The fire on the Moskva comes just two days after a "Russian warship, f***k you...!" postage stamp was officially introduced and a million stamps entered into circulation.

The stamp's illustration features an armed and armored Ukrainian soldier with his middle finger raised to a Russian vessel. The background, the yellow ground and blue ocean, evoke the Ukrainian flag.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posed with a stamp book of the new stamps on Wednesday, and wrote that the phrase, "which became a symbol of the steadfastness of Ukrainian defenders, is now on postage stamps."

The Snake Island incident occurred on the second day of the war, February 25, at a Black Sea island south of Odesa.  The small Ukrainian force of 13 stationed there was recorded cursing at a Russian warship after having been asked to surrender. 

Initially, the Ukrainians announced that the 13 servicemen were killed in action, fighting to the end. The recording and story went viral in Ukraine and abroad, and became a phrase and symbol for Ukraine's fight against Russia. However, on February 27 it was announced by the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service that the servicemen could still be alive. Their capture was confirmed by the Ukrainian navy on February 28, drawing criticism for the propagandizing of a false narrative about a heroic last stand.

Grybov was released from Russian captivity on March 28 and was rewarded with a medal. It is unclear what the conditions for his release were, and what the status is of the other captives.

The other ship that accompanied the Moskva in seizing Snake Island was the the patrol ship Vasily Bykov.

Aaron Reich contributed to this report.