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The Pentagon can't confirm yet how the Russian ship Moskva was destroyed

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The flagship of Russia's fleet is headed to the bottom of the Black Sea. The Kremlin says a fire onboard, the guided missile cruiser known as the Moskva, caused an explosion and that the ship sank in bad weather yesterday as it was being towed to shore. But weather reports in the northern Black Sea showed no storms. The Ukrainians have a different narrative, claiming that two of their anti-ship cruise missiles hit the Moskva about 60 miles off the port city of Odesa. The Pentagon says it doesn't have enough information to confirm or refute either version, but it says something caused a significant explosion on the ship. To understand what this means for the Russian navy and for the war in Ukraine, we're joined by retired Admiral James Foggo. He was formerly commander of the U.S. Naval Forces for Europe and Africa and a NATO commander based in Italy. Admiral Foggo, thanks for being on the program.

JAMES FOGGO: Leila, it's great to be here with you this morning.

FADEL: So, Admiral, what we know for sure is that this flagship has sunk. But this is one ship. Can you explain the significance here? How does the loss of the Moskva impact Russia's dominance in the Black Sea?

FOGGO: Well, first and foremost, Leila, probably one of the biggest wake-up calls for everybody is that we've all thought this is just a land campaign so far. And I think the Russians thought that, too. There really is another element to this, and that is the maritime campaign. This is a terribly humiliating blow to the Russian navy. And it's rather astonishing that they could allow this to happen to themselves. So the forensics of what happened are still going on.

You saw the Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby yesterday say, well, you know, this could have been a missile strike. The Russians, of course, claim it was a fire on board that led to explosion of their own ammunition. But I can't underscore the significance. You know, it's also ironic because the flagship of any navy is usually the one that is the biggest and the best and the brightest. For us in Europe, it's the USS Mount Whitney, my favorite ship in the United States Navy. For the Ukrainians, it was the Hetman Sahaidachny, and sadly, President Zelenskyy ordered the scuttling of their flagship in the Mykolaiv shipyard just a few weeks ago. Even more ironically is that these Slava-class cruisers, of which the Moskva was one, was built in Mykolaiv shipyard. Just think about that. And it's named for the capital, the national capital, of Russia.

FADEL: Now, you talked about this being humiliating for Russia. And it surprised a lot of people how fiercely Ukrainian forces have been able to fight back this huge army. The loss of this ship, what does it say about Russia's military performance in its war in Ukraine?

FOGGO: Well, I think it's a carryover of what we've seen in the land campaign. And they're - this ship, the Moskva, carries the Kalibr-class cruise missile, which was used in combat operations by the Russians. It also carries, you know, a surface-to-surface missile that can gauge other ships. But it also has defensive systems that can defend the ship. What it tells me is that the Russians were complacent. They should have been able to defend their ship. But I think they thought they could operate in the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov with impunity.

And when you're in a wartime scenario, you know, you need to be at battle stations. Obviously, they were distracted by something - if, in fact, this was a missile strike - and allowed their ship to be hit. And then even further as far as how they operate, damage control had to be poor on the ship. You know, the United States Navy has had its fair share of accidents or incidents. The USS Stark was hit by an Exocet missile in the Arabian Gulf back in the '80s. And we've had some collisions recently. We didn't lose any ships because we have sailors that know how to do damage control and chief petty officers, noncommissioned officers, who can take care of emergency or crisis on board the ships. This tells me that the Russians don't have the same level of proficiency.

FADEL: Well, let's talk about the capacity of the Russian army. Do they still have the capacity to take over cities that are strategic coastal cities? I'm thinking of the southern port city of Mariupol, which Russian forces are besieging, have been trying to take for weeks now.

FOGGO: Right. And since they were not able to get in there with their naval infantry and actually take over the city, they've just decided to destroy the city.

FADEL: Yeah.

FOGGO: They've also been unable to take over Mykolaiv, that shipyard I was talking about. And they have not touched Odesa. Odesa will be a very tough fight if they go ashore. They might get their marines ashore. They've got these Ropucha-class amphibious assault ships. But they won't get very far because the fierceness of the Ukrainian fighters. And they've got to be worried now that if there is an anti-ship cruise missile like the Neptune, which they claimed hit the Moskva, that all of their ships are in jeopardy when they come close to the shoreline.

FADEL: You also mentioned flagships are your best ship, right? But this is a 40-year-old ship that was sunk. What does that say about Russia's navy?

FOGGO: Well, it says that, you know, they've got the same kind of budget problems that everybody else's navy has. So they put their resources - the Russians put a lot of their resources into their submarine force. And I'm a submariner, and I know that for a fact. They poured rubles into the undersea domain because they see that as an asymmetric threat against the West. They have six Russian Kilo-class submarines running around the Black Sea right now. They're pretty new, and so they've recapitalized that force. But they have ignored the carrier fleet. The Kuznetsov is in drydock. And they haven't paid as much attention to their surface navy. And this is a wake-up call for them.

FADEL: Overnight, Russia says it struck a Ukrainian defense plant that makes missiles, including anti-ship missiles. So Russia says missiles didn't take down its ship, then it hit a plant that makes anti-ship missiles. So does this lend credibility to Ukraine's version of what happened to the Moskva?

FOGGO: Well, it's quite a coincidence, isn't it? And I would think that - I've also seen that the retaliatory strikes overnight have been brutal on the cities around the coastline, Sea of Azov and all the other areas that the Russians are occupying. So, yes, it would tend to indicate that the Ukrainian story of a two-strike anti-ship cruise missile on Moskva is indeed accurate.

FADEL: That's retired Admiral James Foggo, former commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa. Thank you very much.

FOGGO: You're welcome, Leila. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.