There could not have been a more fitting moment to mark 50 days of war between Russia and Ukraine than the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva. The powerful but aging missile cruiser encapsulated the entire story of the Russian invasion: a large, heavy and rather dilapidated war machine, caught unawares by Ukrainian ingenuity in the shape of two Neptune missiles.
Just like Russia’s military forces, who do not seem to have evolved much from their old Soviet doctrines, the ship – carrying the name of the Russian capital where the war plans were hatched – was also built during Soviet times. It had undergone some “modernization,” but not enough.
To add to the irony, its home port was Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014; and the Soviet shipyard where it had been built is the now-Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv, a key city where the Russia advance toward the Black Sea shore was repulsed last month.
The Moskva was also involved in one of the by-now mythical events at the start of the invasion in February, when it ordered the 13 Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island to surrender and received the response: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”
The morale boost for the Ukrainians in sinking such a major symbol of Russian military power is immense. The military significance is major as well. Moskva, with its batteries of air defense missiles, provided an umbrella for the rest of the Black Sea Fleet’s operations. Without it, the other warships will find it much harder to operate near Ukraine’s coastline. A Russian sea landing off Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city and most important port – a scenario the Ukrainians have been fearing since the war began – is now all but impossible.
But just like all the other Ukrainian successes on the battlefield during the first 50 days of war, while the sinking of the Moskva will hinder the Russian campaign and make it more difficult to achieve its objectives, it isn’t in itself a game-changing event.
The war at sea is an aspect of the invasion that has so far been largely overlooked in the media. Ukraine is extremely vulnerable from the Black Sea, and not just to invasion. No less important is the cutting-off of its main shipping routes, which has all but suffocated Ukraine’s trade with the world.
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The Moskva is no longer part of that naval siege, and the other Russian warships will now maintain a greater distance from the shore for fear of further missile strikes. However, the balance of power at sea is still very much in Russia’s favor.
It still has a formidable force of surface ships and submarines, while Ukraine lost all its large warships in the Crimean annexation of 2014, save for one frigate that was scuttled in the port of Mykolaiv at the start of this war for fear that it too would fall into Russian hands. Ukrainian missiles can keep Russian ships from invading, but they are not enough to remove the blockade.
Just as it has on land and aerially, Ukraine has shown it can also take full advantage of the failings of Russia’s clumsy, badly trained and ill-maintained forces at sea, and block most of the invasion routes. They managed to beat the Russians back from Kyiv and now from the Black Sea shore as well. The threat of imminent collapse has been averted, but not the threat of slow suffocation.
The next 50 days of war will be a different test for Ukraine. Can the country’s siege economy, with support from the West, continue to withstand a brutal war of attrition in which Russia is not only reinforcing its forces in the east, where a new advance is planned, but is already intensifying its missile and air strikes on cities and key civilian infrastructure.
Ukraine’s resilience in the first 50 days has exceeded all predictions, even the most optimistic. Its steadfastness has inspired millions around the world and pushed Western governments to increase arms supplies that are now, finally, beginning to include larger, offensive weapons systems as well.
It has also forced upon Russia a change of tactics to a more prolonged war, and no one can predict which side can survive that longer.