Russia’s Black Sea Blunders

Ukrainian media reported sinking the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, April 13, following a direct hit by an indigenously produced Neptune anti-ship missile. After several hours of uncorroborated reports, Russian media confirmed that its sailors did have to abandon ship–but not because of any Ukrainian missiles. Rather, an accident lead to a fire* in the ship’s weapons depot and, well… kaboom

Either way, this is another embarrassment for Russia and one they can ill afford. While US and Russian officials confirm that the Moskva is still afloat, there’s no good indication of when or if it will reenter service. Russia’s navy has been in severe decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Part of this makes sense–Russia doesn’t just need a Baltic/North Sea fleet, but also a Black Sea fleet, and a Pacific fleet, and if we’re feeling aspirational, an Arctic fleet. (I’m leaving aside Russia’s submarines for the time being.) Maintaining multiple navies is a difficult and expensive logistical endeavor. And if we’ve learned anything about Russia since it started its invasion of Ukraine, it’s that logistics is not their strong suit. 

The loss of the Moskva is especially concerning for the Russians since the Black Sea is of such critical importance for the Russian economy; it is where a bulk of Russian oil and fuel exports reach foreign tankers (at least, when Russia still had customers). And it has been so historically. Russia’s Crimean naval victories of the late 18th and 19th centuries are usually the last mentions of Russian naval glory, especially since the Japanese destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905. 

NATO has largely avoided massing ships in the Black Sea for a variety of reasons, but avoiding unnecessarily antagonizing the Russians has been a big one. But at the rate that that the Russian Black Sea fleet is floundering – the Moskva is the second ship they’ve lost in the last 8 weeks – it’s worth considering for how much longer the Russians will have any meaningful presence on the Black Sea. In that scenario, it is not inconceivable to see NATO placing a few vessels in the Black Sea to hang around Turkish ports (or Georgia, Or Romania, or Bulgaria…).

*I would be remiss to not mention that the flagship of the Russian navy, and their sole aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov suffered a fire in 2019 and… still has not reentered service. There was not a dry dock left that was large enough to accommodate the ship, so the Russians were building one in Murmansk and looking to begin refitting the ship this June, weather permitting. With the amount of sanctions and financial pressures facing Moscow now, I would say their anticipated re-launch date of mid-2023 seems exceedingly optimistic.

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