Russia’s flagship Black Sea vessel sinks while being towed after explosion

All crew evacuated following what Ukraine says was missile strike by its forces

The flagship of the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet has sunk after what Ukrainian officials say was a missile strike by their forces, in another painful blow to the Kremlin's military pride during its costly invasion of Ukraine.

“In the Black Sea operational zone, Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles hit the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet – it received significant damage,” the Ukrainian military’s southern command said on Thursday.

Russia’s defence ministry said the 186m-long Moskva had suffered a fire but did not identify the cause. It said the ship was badly damaged, evacuated of all crew, and was being towed to port – before announcing on Thursday night that it had sunk en route.

US officials said they did not know the cause of the explosion on the Moskva.

"We don't have the capacity at this point to independently verify that but certainly, the way this unfolded, it's a big blow to Russia, " said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Meanwhile, Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, said during a visit to Kyiv on Thursday that Moscow must be held to account for the “mass murder” of civilians in Ukraine.

He announced €3 million in Irish funding for the International Criminal Court (ICC), to make sure “there is a team in place that can document everything that happened and build a case to ensure there will be accountability”.

The loss of the Moskva is another setback for Russia’s stuttering campaign – on the 50th day of its war in Ukraine – as it readies for a new assault in the eastern Donbas region that is likely to define the outcome of the conflict.

Russian forces have pulled back from some northern parts of Ukraine after suffering heavy losses and failing to take the capital Kyiv. Ukraine and its western allies say Moscow is redeploying for a new offensive.

"Russian forces are increasing their activities on the southern and eastern fronts, attempting to avenge their defeats," Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Wednesday night video address.

Russia’s navy has launched cruise missiles into Ukraine, and its activities in the Black Sea are crucial to supporting land operations in the south of the country, where it is battling to seize full control of the port of Mariupol after weeks of bombardment.

Russian news agencies said the Soviet-era Moskva, commissioned in 1983, was armed with 16 anti-ship Vulkan cruise missiles with a range of at least 700km.

Televised

Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar said in televised comments on Thursday that Russia was massing troops not only along the Russia-Ukraine border, but also in Belarus and Moldova’s breakaway Transniestria region.

Authorities in Transniestria, which borders southern Ukraine, had on Monday denied Russia was preparing forces there to threaten Ukraine.

The Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine’s east were being hit by missile strikes, Ms Malyar said.

Kharkiv’s governor said four civilians had been killed by shelling.

Russian authorities said villages in its southern regions of Bryansk and Belgorod had come under fire from Ukraine. Neither side’s statements could be independently verified and Ukraine’s military did not respond to requests for comment about cross-border shelling.

Russia said on Wednesday that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines from one of the scattered units still holding out in the shattered city of Mariupol had surrendered. Ukrainian officials did not comment.

If taken, Mariupol, Ukraine's main Sea of Azov port, would be the first major city to fall to Russian forces since they invaded on February 24th.

Its capture would allow Russia to reinforce a land corridor between separatist-held eastern areas and the Crimea region it seized and annexed in 2014.

Humanitarian corridors

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said nine humanitarian corridors had been agreed on for Thursday to evacuate civilians, including by private car, from Mariupol.

Ukraine says tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed in Mariupol. Mariupol's mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said Russia had brought in mobile crematoria "to get rid of evidence of war crimes" – a statement that it was not possible to verify independently.

In the village of Lubianka northwest of Kyiv, from where Russian forces had tried and failed to subdue the capital before retreating, a message to Ukrainians had been written on the wall of a house that had been occupied by Russian troops. “We did not want this ... forgive us,” it said.

The Kremlin says it launched a "special military operation" to demilitarise and "liberate" Ukraine from nationalist extremists, a message villagers said had been repeated to them by the Russian troops. "To liberate us from what? We're peaceful ... We're Ukrainians," Lubianka resident Viktor Shaposhnikov said.

A mission of experts set up by Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) nations said on Wednesday it had found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Russia in Ukraine.

Russia has denied targeting civilians. Andriy Nyebytov, head of the Kyiv region police, said more than 800 bodies had been found in three districts which had been occupied by Russian forces.

“We are finding terrible things: buried and hidden bodies of people who were tortured and shot, and who died as a result of mortar and artillery fire,” Mr Nyebytov said in televised comments. His statements could not immediately be verified.

Economic crisis

Moscow’s incursion, the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, has seen more than 4.6 million people flee abroad, killed or wounded thousands and left Russia increasingly isolated on the world stage.

Western-led sanctions have triggered the worst economic crisis in Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, say analysts.

More than 600 companies, including McDonalds, have announced their withdrawal from Russia, which will directly cause the loss of about 1 million jobs. Overall, 2.6 million people may fall below Russia’s official poverty line this year, the World Bank estimates.

The conflict has also galvanised Nato and prompted Russia's neighbours Sweden and Finland to discuss joining the western military alliance.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and one of president Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, warned on Thursday that such a move would force Russia to bolster its defences in the Baltic region, including by deploying nuclear weapons. Additional reporting: – Reuters

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe

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