Russia still can produce impressively destructive firepower but its 21st-century powerhouse image has taken a hit
Last week’s sinking of the missile cruiser Moskva not only was a blow to Russia’s campaign to crush Ukrainian resistance; it also damaged the broader Russian effort to flex impressive military might.
The Moskva – the name means Moscow in Russian – was meant to symbolize a full rebirth of Russia’s military power after years of decline. Embedded in the campaign was an implied threat to its neighbors’ feeling of security: You must take our interests seriously.
Over 185 meters long and supporting a tower decorated with the command bridge and an array of radar antennas, the Moskva cut an imposing figure. Yet, in actuality, the Moskva was a throwback. It was built in 1979, a time when the Soviet navy concentrated on the threat of nuclear attacks, not on the danger from pesky low-flying conventional missiles.
Its surprisingly flimsy hull and onboard weaponry were unable to defend against a nimble assault of low-flying missiles. It possessed no cruise missiles to patrol areas of possibly threatening enemy activity.
Non-leading-edge equipment that functioned like a party line from the telephone’s early days opened sensitive communications to whoever happened to be listening in from other – not necessarily Russian – ships. After the missile strikes, the captain’s unencrypted “abandon ship” order was monitored as far away as Sicily.
“The Moskva is a piece of scrap metal,” an Italian naval commander told me.
In effect, the Moskva was a sort of floating Potemkin village. The term refers to those fake rural neighborhoods that were said (apocryphally, according to some recent research) to have been constructed by Grigory Potemkin, a Russian minister and lover of Catherine the Great, to impress the Tsarina as she traveled through – ironically enough – Ukraine.
The ship was less than it seemed.
The disaster also exemplified a feature of this invasion: the underestimation of Ukrainian military capabilities – in this case, of the mobility and accuracy of the Neptunes.
The Moskva was pulled from service in 1990, then haphazardly revamped and placed back at sea in 2000. Its mission: to hunt down US aircraft carriers, target them from long range with supersonic missiles and use powerful anti-aircraft defenses to provide cover to other ships.
Confident in its defenses, the Moskva operated within 60 miles of the Ukrainian shore, well within the Neptune’s range. The short distance offshore provided little time for the bulky ship to evade an attack or even to fire at the approaching missiles. They arrived in less than seven minutes.
No one apparently imagined that the Ukrainians could sink such a grand ship. “Russia took chances with its use of this aging cruiser that a nation with a healthy respect for its adversary would not have taken,” wrote SOFREP, a private US military website.
The destruction of the Moskva is far from the only miscalculation of Ukrainian capabilities. Intercepted radio chatter and reports of insufficient supplies, fuel and food suggest that the Russians expected a quick rout.
Putin apparently thought the Ukrainian army would fold quickly. Early in the war, he invited them to simply go home. NATO leaders, including President Joe Biden, initially predicted a Russian victory within a few days.
Instead, the war has lasted more than two months, so far. As Russia concentrates in eastern and southern Ukraine, the remaining Black Sea ships will have to patrol farther offshore than anticipated, reducing surveillance of Ukrainian land forces and the ability to target them.
The initial Russian response to the disaster was denial, followed by a destructive military tantrum. The Russians bombed Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, which Russia’s siege forces had abandoned only a few days ago. Putin also told NATO and the European Union to stop supplying advanced weapons to the Ukrainians or face unspecified punishment.
Russia still can, of course, produce impressively destructive firepower if it chooses to embark on a full scorched-earth strategy. The dislocations of the Ukrainian population and the terror of a Russian occupation are incentives to the Ukraine government to find some sort of settlement with Putin.
But the image of Russia as a 21st-century powerhouse has been damaged. The Moskva exemplifies a military force in some disarray. Reports of deficient quality of its fighters on the ground and deep logistical problems suggest the Russian military’s post-Soviet makeover is still incomplete.
Follow Daniel Williams on Twitter: @dwilliams1949
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.