One of the major casualties of the Russia-Ukraine conflict was the loss of the Russian Navy cruiser, the Moskva, in the Black Sea, after an unexplained fire on board. While Ukraine understandably claimed credit —albeit not yet corroborated — the twin factors of the constricted Black Sea geography and the sub-optimal utilisation of a capital ship vis-à-vis the Russian naval objective, are assessed to have been the main causes of the loss. The role of Turkey in closing the only two straits providing access to the Black Sea, citing the provisions of the archaic Montreux Convention of 1936, and not permitting Russia to reinforce its naval power in the Black Sea, is also crucial in the floundering Russian naval campaign. This incident brings home a hard truth, not only to the Russian Navy, but to all the naval strategists the World-over: that ‘naval warfare is lot of inaction, followed by a few minutes of mayhem’. Those who do not constantly bear this truism in mind and prepare their naval men and material appropriately, do so at their great peril.
“Turkiye (sic) will use its authority over the Turkish Straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention to prevent the Russia-Ukraine crisis from further escalating.”
— Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey
The Russian Navy cruiser, Moskva, the largest ship in the Black Sea Fleet — and its Flagship — reportedly suffered a major fire and resultant multiple explosions of onboard ammunition, on 13 April 2022. All personnel were supposedly evacuated from the stricken warship after it became apparent that the ship was in the danger of capsizing. The ship finally keeled over and sank on 14 April 2022, while being towed to the nearest Russian naval harbour, Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula.
While the Ukrainian authorities triumphantly claimed that the Russian cruiser was hit and severely damaged by two of its Neptune anti-ship missiles, but could not provide any supporting evidence, the Russian Ministry of Defence — as quoted by its national media — continued with the assertion of “ammunition explosion on board resulting in severe damage”. In the absence of additional facts, the strategic and security community has been offering varying interpretations and analyses to support each of these theories, largely based on conjecture and swayed by personal or institutional biases. The exact sequence of events and factual details of the incident may possibly never be revealed in the public domain. This notwithstanding, the fact remains that Russia has lost its largest warship ever — since the Cold War — during a conflict scenario.
This article initially provides an overview of Russian naval forces in and around the Black Sea, then dwells on the peculiar geography of the Black Sea, which turned out to be a significant factor in limiting the Russian Navy’s concept of operations. It thereafter analyses the causes — internal as well as external — of the cruiser’s loss, and the likely options available to Russia for optimal utilisation of its Black Sea naval forces in support of its campaign. The final post-incident assessment is carried out against the background of Turkey’s continued control over the entry/exit of warships into/from the Black Sea, in accordance with the provisions of the Montreux Convention 1936.
Russian Naval Force Build-up
The Moskva cruiser was largest of the only six principal surface combatants — other five being guided-missile frigates (FFG) — based at the Black Sea Fleet headquarter at Sevastopol. The rest of the Black Sea Fleet comprises 36 patrol and coastal craft, six diesel-electric submarines, and 10 landing ships — seven large and three medium ones. In the run up to the outbreak of the ongoing armed conflict, six additional landing ships, each displacing between 4500 and 6500 tonnes, entered the Black Sea, in February 2022, in two batches.
A naval group from the Russian Pacific Fleet comprising three ships — the Slava-Class cruiser Varyag, the guided-missile destroyer Admiral Tributs, and a replenishment ship — were generally present in and around the Mediterranean Sea from November 2021 onwards. In addition, one cruiser and some destroyers/frigates from the Russian North Sea Fleet and the Baltic Sea Fleets also entered the Mediterranean Sea. In last week of February of 2022, Russia informed Turkey about its intention to send four of these major surface combatants — two destroyers, one frigate and an intelligence-collection ship — into Black Sea, on 27-28 February 2022. Turkey however, denied permission for the Russian ships to cross the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, invoking the provisions of Montreux Convention of 1936 — regulating the regime of these two straits. It announced the closure of the two straits for the warships of “nations at war”.
The 12-strong Russian Amphibious Task Force — six Black-Sea-based landing ships and six from other fleets, which entered prior to outbreak of hostilities — did carry out an amphibious demonstration in the Sea of Azov. However, an effective operation could probably not be carried out in the absence of supporting forces, which were not able to enter the Black Sea because of Turkey’s intervention. In fact, the number of Russian naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea progressively increased to 18 by 09 March 2022 — which included 13 major surface combatants and five support ships.
Russian Naval Campaign Plan in Black Sea
The very fact that Russia was trying to push so many naval ships into the Black Sea, points to an acute shortage of naval power required for achieving even the preliminary objective of dominating the southern Ukrainian coastline. This would, prima-facie, translate into a blockade of major ports such as Odessa and Mariupol, bring effective missile- and gun-fire on land targets from the sea, mount an amphibious assault to capture beachheads, sustain presence ashore, and project land forces deep inland — to support the larger Russian military’s objective of a multi-pronged advance into Ukraine.
However, the Black Sea with its peculiar locational characteristics, placed Russia in quite a disadvantageous position as far as the fulfilment of its naval objectives was concerned. Hence, there is a need to study the Black Sea geography, so as to better appreciate the peculiar complexities of the Russian task at hand vis-à-vis the force-requirement for such fulfilment.
Black Sea Geography
The Black Sea is about 600 nautical miles (nm) at its longest, and 400 nm at its broadest. It is virtually landlocked but for a solitary sea-access route through the Bosphorus Strait from the Sea of Marmara located to its south-west. Yet another narrow water body — the Dardanelles Strait — connects the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. Both these straits are under the sovereign control of Turkey, which regulates all maritime traffic — both, warships and mercantile vessels — therein. The Crimean Peninsula juts out into the Black Sea, roughly dividing its northern seascape into two water bodies — the western one leads into a large bay, while the eastern one leads into the Sea of Azov. The Sea of Azov, too, is accessed through a single waterway, namely, the Kerch Strait, passage through which is regulated by Russia. The general depth in most of the Black Sea is less than 100 metres, except for a small area in the continental shelf where the depth extends to 160 metres.
Six countries — Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia — lie along the rim of the Black Sea; and are contracting parties to the “Protocol on Protection of the Black Sea Marine Environment Against Pollution from Land Based Sources”, also referred-to as the Bucharest Convention. Mariupol, located along the Sea of Azov, is a major Ukrainian port, as is Odessa, which lies on the north-western shore of the Black Sea. The main Russian naval base and the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet is at Sevastopol in Crimea. The other major Russian naval base and ship-repair facility in the Black Sea is at Novorossiysk. The map of the Black Sea (Figure 1) provides a spatial correlation of its geographical attributes described above.
Figure 1: The Black Sea Geography
Source: Map from Google Earth; markings by the Author
The distances between certain locations in Black Sea, which are relevant to this article, are shown below:
- Bosphorus Strait-Kerch Strait: 400 nm
- Bosphorus Strait-Sevastopol: 280 nm
- Sevastopol-Odessa: 160 nm
- Kerch Strait-Mariupol: 100 nm
The Slava-class cruiser Moskva (pennant number 121) was built in the Nikolyev Shipyard of Ukraine, which was part of erstwhile Soviet Union. The ship, displacing more than 11,000 tonnes at full load, was commissioned in December of 1982 and belonged to the third-largest Class of Russian warships, after the aircraft carrier (the Kuznetsov) and the Kirov-Class nuclear-propelled cruisers. The Moskva was quite heavily armed, with 16 Vulcan anti-ship missiles (range: 450 km), a three-layered air- and anti-missile defence system, and a range of anti-submarine torpedoes and rockets. It was equipped with long-range surveillance and targeting sensors, as also modern Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, which taken in aggregate, enabled the ship to be capable of comprehensive, multi-domain warfighting and formidable self-defence.
The ship was not, however, equipped with land-attack cruise missiles, because of which it was not ideally suited for attacking targets ashore in Ukraine. The ship’s main 130 mm twin-barrelled gun could, of course, be used for firing on shore-targets but for this, the Moskva would have to come quite close to the coast, given that the range of the gun was limited to approximately 22 km (approximately 12 nm). The ship’s main strength lay in its ability to provide an effective air-defence umbrella to Russian naval forces operating close to the shore for amphibious tasks, while the Moskva itself remained at stand-off distance.
Probable Operational Causes leading to the Moskva Incident
Blue water surface combatants — these are typically ‘capital ships’ — can be utilised to their full potential in open waters, where there is enough manoeuvring room to engage in multi-domain operations. Open waters also provide adequate sea area for such ships to remain beyond the threatened range of the adversary’s ground-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, missiles and aircraft; and while enabling for themselves the freedom to ‘shoot and scoot’ at high-speed, when required. The Moskva, operating in a near landlocked sea with severely limited sea space was, therefore, at a huge disadvantage on all these counts. The regular area of the ship’s operation since the outbreak of hostilities on 24 February 2022, lay in the constricted bay between Sevastopol and Odessa — the direct distance between them being a mere 160 nm.
Naval analysts monitoring the ship’s broad movements through purportedly open-source intelligence, placed it off Snake Island — just about 25 nm from the Ukrainian coastline — between 24 and 28 February 2022; and, subsequently, in a general area ranging from 40-90 nm between 15 March and 04 April 2022. The ship established a deployment pattern wherein it would return to its home port of Sevastopol after about 6-7 days, probably for replenishment of fuel and stores. The entire sailing itinerary of the Moskva began to fit into a predictable pattern — something that no warship ought to be comfortable with. Further, its operational presence in the restricted ‘bay area’ rendered its movements prone to easy tracking from shore-based sensors and drones. The probable covert ISR and targeting-support provided by the US and/or certain NATO/EU countries opposed to the Russian invasion, would have greatly exacerbated the risk.
It is posited that the import of such a precariously unenviable situation and disadvantageous operating environment, would surely not have been lost on the ship’s Commanding Officer and the operational team, especially those placed in the upper segments of the hierarchical chain of command. There are a number of probable reasons as to why the Moskva persisted in conforming to what was by now a well-established operating pattern. Some of the most obvious of these are:
(a) The Russian Navy was reasonably sure that the Ukrainian shore-based airborne ISR and attack capabilities had been sufficiently degraded to the point where they posed no viable threat to Russian ships operating close to the Ukrainian coast.
(b) The Russian Navy had little or no knowledge of Ukraine having operationally deployed ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.
(c) The implications of the occasional appearance of Turkish-origin Ukrainian TB-2 Bayraktar armed drones at sea, were not fully appreciated by the Russian ships.
(d) The Moskva had absolute confidence in its anti-air- and anti-missile defence capabilities.
(e) The ship’s crew had become somewhat complacent, possibly out of weariness having set in due to a high-level of alertness requiring to be maintained over prolonged period, with virtually no action to relive the tedium.
In the event — and despite denials by Russian official establishment about an attack by the Ukrainian missiles — the Moskva suffered an uncontrollable ‘unexplained’ fire on board, reportedly from multiple explosions of its own ammunition. The ship finally sank a day later, while being towed to harbour. If two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles had, indeed, managed to pierce the cruiser’s supposedly impermeable air-defence, it certainly would indicate that the ship’s crew and weapon systems were either not ready at the moment of action, or were so distracted by the Ukrainian TB-2 Bayraktar armed drones, that they could not mount a viable anti-missile defence.
Other causes could include inadequacies in maritime domain awareness (MDA)-support provided to the ship through a reliable two-way data link with Command Posts and land- and space-based sensors. An informed article suggests that this kind of integration would ensure seamless transfer of a near-real-time operational picture, so as to enable the ship to assess the situation better, have more response time, and mount a credible defence well in time by ‘creating a bigger bubble of lethality’, rather than being forced to depend solely upon its own standalone sensors for the entire kill chain. Also, while the professionalism of Russian sailors and the ship’s damage-control readiness has come under a cloud, these remain in the speculative realm, until the actual sequence of events as they unfolded— if and when that happens — is known. It is, however, quite apparent that a major warship not equipped with land-attack cruise missiles otherwise heavily-armed, had little business being deployed close to Ukrainian coast in a sub-optimal role, thus exposing itself needlessly to the danger of aerial attack in constricted sea space.
The loss of a major warship in combat — whether attributable to enemy action or otherwise — is often linked to national morale and certainly psychologically impacts a nation’s collective will to continue with hostilities. That is reason, some countries treat such national assets as their ‘centre of gravity’. In the case of the Moskva, the symbolism of Russia’s third largest ship — and the Flag ship of the Black Sea Fleet — being lost in a combat scenario, was not lost on anyone. The double-whammy was that Russia could neither bolster its naval power in the Black Sea, nor replace the ship with another one of equal naval significance. Turkey would just not allow the Russian warships waiting in the Aegean Sea to pass through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits, citing the provisions of Montreux Convention of 1936. In fact, Turkey — in a highly exaggerated interpretation of the Montreux Convention — warned all countries not to send warships through the two straits to the Black Sea during the Russia-Ukraine war. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu clearly stated, “We warned all riparian and non-riparian countries not to let warships go through the straits”.
While Russia has, as on date, continued to abide by the Turkish pronouncement, and no request from other nations for letting their warships pass through the straits has yet been made; the status, applicability, and relevance of Montreux Convention itself, and its provisions in the current crisis, are open to debate. Two obvious questions are:
(a) Is the Convention with its lifespan of 20 years — and supposedly having expired in 1956 — with no effort by any of the signatories to formulate a follow-on agreement, still a valid enforcement-tool?
(b) Should the provisions laid down in the subsequently-promulgated United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, regulating transit passage through international straits not be followed in supersession of the Montreux Convention, especially when Article 38 stipulates that “the right of transit passage through international straits shall not be impeded”?
Notwithstanding these questions relating to the applicability of the Montreux Convention — so germane in the current circumstances — and the unilateral excessive authority assigned by Turkey to itself in closing the strait and denying passage to all warships, the fact remains that Russia is unable to supplement its naval forces in the Black Sea. Despite realising that the depleted naval strength following the loss of the Moskva is simply inadequate to dominate Ukrainian territory from the sea, Russia is not questioning the legal tenability of the Montreux Convention. This gives credence to the hypothesis that larger geopolitical dynamics — including those concerning the generally friendly Russia-Turkey relations — may be at play, constricting Russian freedom of action.
The absence of credible area air-defence cover, which the Moskva was otherwise providing, has forced Russian warships to remain farther away from coastline. The resultant change in the operational scenario would appear to have put paid to any amphibious landing plans that Russia may have initially mulled over, so as to insert land forces along the southern axis. On the other hand, Russia, smarting from this globally-visible embarrassment, would surely be keen to deliver a fitting riposte. The reported use of submarine-launched Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). for the first time, to target the outskirts of Kiev and other military targets deeper inland can be taken as a precursor for more punitive attacks to follow.
While the remaining Russian frigates — and submarines too — may well continue with limited engagement of targets ashore by their LACMs, the imperative to remain beyond the targeting-range of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, precludes their meaningful contribution to support the Russian Navy’s war effort in the Black Sea. In this context, at least one maritime analyst has concluded that the loss of the Moskva has had so adverse an impact upon the freedom-of-manoeuvre of Russia’s remaining warships —particularly the admiral Makarov Class frigates — that it is tantamount to the loss Russian frigates themselves!
The fact that ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet have borne the brunt of Ukrainian drone- and missile-attacks subsequent to the sinking of the Moskva, indicates the importance of the cruiser in supporting the entire concept of Russian naval operations in that area. Since the Moskva incident, there have been reports of one Russian landing ship and two fast attack craft being severely damaged in attacks mounted by Ukrainian armed drones. This could only have been possible in the absence of viable Russian air-defence cover. An ambitious Ukrainian claim in fact, reported successful targeting of the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. Even though the Ukrainian claim proved to be false, there is no denying that the remaining Russian naval ships in the Black Sea remain in great danger due to the constricted geography of the Black Sea, and ISR support probably being covertly provided the US and its NATO allies. The limited sea room also leaves the Russian Navy with hardly any scope for flexibility in planning and executing operational manoeuvres.
The risk quotient gets further exacerbated because the only route for providing reinforcements is controlled by another country, which is not helping the Russian cause by citing an archaic convention long past its ‘use by’ date. Concurrently, the Russian naval leadership must surely be wrestling with the dilemma whether it would be wise to commit more ships — and risking them too — in a constricted sea space, particularly in light of the Moskva debacle. That might also be a reason for Moscow not calling out Turkey on the latter’s exaggerated interpretation of the Montreux Convention. Finally, the Russian ships deployed in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas — and awaiting further orders — are generally in NATO’s naval area of dominance, and prudence would call for Moscow to exercise due deliberation before pushing Turkey — which is still part of NATO — too hard.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict moves well into its third month, Russia may employ even heavier land-based ordnance in future to meet its military objective/s vis-à-vis Ukraine. Be that as it may, the Russian naval campaign through its solitary maritime axis of the Black Sea appears to be irrevocably floundering, in the aftermath of the Moskva’s sinking. Even while full details of the Moskva incident remain hidden from the general public, one can reasonably conclude that the Russian ship’s readiness — in terms of both, men and material — during those few crucial minutes of action could certainly have been better. A noted Indian maritime analyst, Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retired), has quite correctly theorised that “naval warfare is lot of inaction, then few minutes of mayhem and action.” It is unfortunate that this truism was brought home to the Russians quite so tragically.
About the Author:
Captain Kamlesh K Agnihotri, IN (Retd.) is a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. His research concentrates upon maritime facets of hard security vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. He also focuses upon maritime issues related to Russia and Turkey. Views expressed in this article are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Dilara Hamit, “Turkiye will use Montreux Convention to Prevent Escalation in Ukraine war”, Anadolu Agency, 28 February 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-crisis/turkiye-will-use-montreux-convention-to-prevent-escalation-in-ukraine-war/2518727
 International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military balance 2022 (Oxford shire: Taylor & Francis, 2022), 204.
 Sam LaGrone, “UPDATED: Russian Navy Amphibious Group Enters Black Sea as Warships Mass in the Mediterranean”, USNI News, 08 February 2022. https://news.usni.org/2022/02/08/six-ship-russian-navy-amphibious-group-attack-sub-approach-black-sea-as-warships-mass-in-the-mediterranean
 Black Sea News, “The Presence of Russian Warships in the Mediterranean Sea as of 9 March 2022”, 09 March 2022. https://www.blackseanews.net/en/read/186116
 Black Sea News, “The Presence of Russian Warships in the Mediterranean Sea as of 9 March 2022”, ibid.
 The Commission on the protection of the Black Sea against pollution, “Protocol on Protection of the Black Sea Marine Environment Against Pollution from Land Based Sources”, http://www.blacksea-commission.org/Official%20Documents/The%20Convention/Protocols%20to%20the%20Convention/#/ConventionProtocols
 HI Sutton, “Russia’s Most Powerful Warship in the Black Sea is Operating in a Pattern”, Naval News, 07 April 2022. https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/04/russias-most-powerful-warship-in-the-black-sea-is-operating-in-a-pattern/#prettyPhoto
 Helene Cooper et al, “U.S. Intelligence Helped Ukraine Strike Russian Flagship, Officials Say”, The New York Times, 05 May 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/05/us/politics/moskva-russia-ship-ukraine-us.html
 David Hambling, “Ukraine’s Bayraktar Drone Helped Sink Russian Flagship Moskva”, Forbes, 14 April 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2022/04/14/ukraines-bayraktar-drones-helped-destroy-russian-flagship/?sh=19eb68f53a7a
 P.W. Singer, “Warships are evolving, but they won’t go away”, Washington Post, 01 May 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/04/28/ships-moskva-future-navy/
 ‘Centre of gravity’ is described as the characteristics, capabilities or resources from which a nation, an alliance or a military force…. Derives its freedom of action, physical strength or will to fight. See the Australian Maritime Doctrine-RAN Doctrine 1, 2nd ed. (2010), 185.
 The formal title of Montreux Convention is ‘1936 Convention regarding the Regime of the Straits’; and is so called because in was signed at Montreux, Switzerland on 20 July 1936. Article 19 of the convention stipulate that “In a time of war, Turkey not being belligerent… vessels of war belonging to belligerent Powers shall not, however, pass through the Straits…”
 Mumin Altas, “Turkiye warns all countries against warships going through Turkish Straits”, Anadolu Agency, 28 February 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-crisis/turkiye-warns-all-countries-against-warships-going-through-turkish-straits/2518827
 Reuters, “Russia Says It Fires Cruise Missiles from Submarine, Warns Again on NATO Arms Shipments”,04 May 2022. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2022-05-04/russia-says-it-disables-ukrainian-railway-stations-used-to-transport-western-weapons#:~:text=May%204%2C%202022%2C%20at%204%3A20%20a.m.&text=(Reuters)%20%2DRussia%20said%20on,of%20NATO%20weapons%20to%20Ukraine
 David Axe, “The Russian Frigate ‘Admiral Makarov’ might be the juiciest target in the Black Sea”, Forbes, 06 May 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2022/05/06/the-russian-frigate-admiral-makarov-might-be-the-juiciest-target-in-the-black-sea/?sh=213215df74d5
 Gaurav Sawant, “Naval warfare is lot of inaction then few minutes of mayhem action”, chat with RAdm Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd.), StratNews Global, 18 April 2022. https://stratnewsglobal.com/russia/naval-warfare-is-lot-of-inaction-then-few-minutes-of-mayhem-action/
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