The Russian Cruiser ‘Moskva’ Dominates The Black Sea

The cruiser ‘Moscow.’

Photo of the Russian Navy

The Russian naval cruiser Moskva is by far the most powerful warship in the Black Sea. If Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to escalate their war in Ukraine, the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, would no doubt lead the naval attack.

Think of Moskva as a 12,500-ton, 612-foot mobile missile battery with nearly 500 people on board. It has enough anti-ship missiles to wipe out the entire Ukrainian Navy and enough anti-aircraft missiles to repel any conceivable air attack on the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious flotilla.

The value of the Moscow River to an operation in Ukraine could make it a top target for Ukrainian missile launchers. Assuming the Ukrainians can save their anti-ship missiles from Russian bombardment and pinpoint the position of Moskva with radar or drones, they could get a few shots at the cruiser.

Moskva is not a new ship. She entered service with the Soviet Navy back in 1982, as the first in a class of three ships. Analysts viewed the Moskva and her sisters as conventionally powered alternatives to the nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruisers.

Both types acted as heavily armed flagships for surface action groups that would have sailed to the open seas in wartime to confront NATO warships. Forty years after her commissioning, the Moskva retains the facilities and weaponry of a missile-firing flagship.

It packs 16 fixed launchers for P-1000 anti-ship missiles with a range of 300 miles, vertical tubes for 64 S-300 anti-aircraft missiles with a range of 56 miles, rail launchers for 40 Osa missiles for air self-defense plus a host of guns – two 130mm guns capable of hitting targets 15 miles away and self-defense guns. Torpedo tubes and a helicopter round out their abilities.

The cruiser’s sensors make it self-sufficient as a missile battery. The ship’s top pair and top steer radars can look out to 200 miles or more. The Moskva led the Russian Navy’s naval attack on the Republic of Georgia in 2008, protecting three amphibious ships that landed a battalion or two of naval infantry.

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, the cruiser stopped off Donutslaw Bay and offloaded Ukrainian warships there. In 2015, she was deployed to the Syrian coast to protect Russian troops from possible air and sea attacks.

Aging and reportedly prone to fire, the Moskva sailed back to Sevastopol in Crimea in 2016 for a three-year overhaul. She emerged with P-1000 anti-ship missiles in place of her older P-500s. The overhaul extends their lifespan by about a decade.

As early as November, Moskva and the frigate Admiral Essen sailed from Sevastopol to shadow American and Turkish warships patrolling the Black Sea.

The Moskva’s sensors and weapons have kept it relevant, even as the Russian Navy has largely abandoned Soviet doctrine in recent decades. Today, the Russian Navy combines ocean-going submarines with a modest surface force that constantly replaces large, high-endurance vessels with small, short-lived ones. These small ships—frigates and corvettes—have a long-range attack capability in the form of Kalibr cruise missiles.

Moskva is not a Kalibr carrier. But she can protect the Kalibr carriers – and other ships – while sweeping the surrounding sea and air from enemy ships and aircraft. Apart from Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet operates 10 frigates and corvettes, six diesel-electric submarines, and 10 or 11 amphibious ships and boats.

In the most likely Ukraine scenarios, the corvettes and submarines will drop Kalibrs on targets ashore, while the amphibians, sailing within the protective screen of the Moskva missiles, will land a few battalions as part of a possible broader effort to hit Ukrainian ports like conquer Odessa.

The Ukrainian fleet is powerless. It has no submarines. And their only major surface combatant, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, lacks major weapons. The Ukrainian Air Force withdrew from separatist-held Donbass in 2015 and has not played a major role in Ukraine’s defense since.

The only Ukrainian forces that could have a realistic shot at Moskva are the new Neptune anti-ship missile batteries. The stealthy, radar-guided Neptune can hit ships up to 175 miles away. Kiev has bought Turkish-made TB-2 drones and American-made radars capable of detecting targets for the Neptunes.

It’s not clear how many Neptunes it might take to breach Moskva’s defenses. It is also not clear how many Neptunes the Ukrainians own.

In any case, the Moskva is a large ship and has proven that it can handle a missile. According to some reports, back in 2008, the Georgian Navy managed to score a hit on the cruiser. She spent a year in dry dock and was back at sea in 2010.

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