What Happened?

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This is one of those posts where I am not reporting news but rather walking you through my own efforts — thus far incomplete — to do so. You’ve likely heard that Ukraine attacked and sank the Russian missile cruiser Moskva off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. In the modern Russian Navy the Moskva was essentially a capital ship though I don’t know if it was technically considered one. So this was a big big deal. How was Ukraine able to pull it off? What now seems largely undisputed is that Ukraine fired two Neptune anti-ship missiles (produced by Ukraine itself) which struck the Moskva and (possibly along with detonation of the ship’s own armaments and ammunition) sank the ship.

But there’s a further explanation that has been widely reported. It goes like this. The Moskva’s air defenses had only a 180 degree field of view. So Ukraine fielded Turkish-built drones on one side of the ship to hold its attention and then hit it from the other side with the Neptune missiles. Here is a graphic from The Daily Mail which illustrates the idea.

The Daily Mail

But can it really be the case that one of the largest and most important ships in the Russia Navy can only “see” in one direction at a time? Even for someone totally unfamiliar with naval warfare that seems like too obvious and glaring a vulnerability. Can it really be that simple? As this analysis in Naval News explains, it’s not. A vessel like the Moskva has a complex and redundant air defense system that should allow it to detect, monitor and counter lots of threats at once from every direction. The key is that a cruise missile attack leaves only a very short period of time to detect and react. So even if the ship has the capabilities it is extremely dependent on crew training — really, really good crew training and professionalism — to allow the technology to do its work. That seems to have been the problem. And that Naval News article explains some breakdowns in coordination (which I won’t even try to describe) which could account for it.

Of course this would match a lot else we’ve seen in the course of this conflict — a bloated, unevenly trained and even corrupt Russian military facing off against a focused and creative, albeit much less resourced Ukrainian military.

Here’s where my snooping has broken down so far. I read somewhere early after the ship was attacked that the Ukrainian military, either from Soviet era operational knowledge or more recent intelligence, knew things about Russian naval practice that, under certain conditions, would leave them vulnerable to this kind of distraction attack. The key word is “somewhere.” I cannot remember where I read this.

There’s clearly a fascinating story here. I’m just not sure we know yet quite what it is. If you see other articles that seem specific and well-sourced, please let me know.

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