Sinking of Russian flagship Moskva has symbolic importance beyond Ukraine

Vindication of so-called porcupine strategy has lessons for Ireland

Moscow and Kyiv agree on some facts: namely, that the Russian naval flagship the Moskva is out of action after an explosion.

Ukrainian forces take credit for ending the reign of the Black Sea behemoth in a Neptune missile hit, while Russia’s defence ministry has said there was a fire and that ammunition exploded, without stating a cause. They later said it had sunk while being towed back to port.

The ship was a key part of Russia's dominance of the Black Sea, helping Moscow supply and support its land invasion while launching cruise missiles from the water that can hit anywhere in Ukraine.

Its destruction is symbolically important as Russia’s leading ship in the fleet. But also because it was the vessel involved in the standoff with the Ukrainian border guards of Snake Island, in which they replied to a demand for their surrender with the now-famous words “Russian warship, go f**k yourself”.

It would be particularly striking for a naval flagship to have been taken out by a country without much of a navy of its own: most of Ukraine's navy was lost when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

It also adds to mounting and costly Russian losses, most strikingly shown in the columns of burnt-out tanks .

Prior to the war Russia was calculated to have four times as many active troops as Ukraine, a similar ratio of armoured fighting vehicles, even more of an advantage in aircraft, and 49 submarines to Kyiv’s zero.

The resilience and effectiveness of Ukraine’s defence, and ability to impose great costs on Russia despite Moscow’s vastly greater numbers, have significance far beyond Ukraine.

It’s a vindication of the so-called porcupine strategy that underpins the defence of many other states that contend with a larger neighbour they suspect of territorial designs.

Estonia (1.3 million), Latvia (1.9 million), and Lithuania (2.8 million) will always suffer a numerical disadvantage compared to Russia (144 million). They have long feared the expansionary ambitions of their large neighbour, particularly since the annexation of Crimea.

Their strategy in response is not to try to match Moscow’s numbers – that would be impossible – but to make themselves indigestible. More trouble to attack than they are worth.

Guerilla warfare

Determination and perseverance despite being vastly outnumbered is crucial. The logic goes that even if territory were to be successfully seized by the invading army it would face determined guerilla warfare from domestic forces that would make it difficult and expensive to keep.

There was significant scepticism internationally towards this approach and how effective it would prove in the face of Russian military brute force, particularly given its emphasis on light infantry forces bolstered by volunteer and national guard units trained up from the civilian population.

These doubts may be why western governments and Moscow both expected Kyiv to crumble within days of the invasion. Of course, it has not.

The lesson has some relevance for Ireland.

There’s a common misconception in Ireland that in order to have any value, defence forces must match in strength any potential invading army. This is obviously impossible for small countries, and is not the aim. Rather it is to make the country not worth the bother.