New photos and a short video clip emerged early Monday on social media showing Russia’s guided-missile cruiser, the Moskva, badly damaged and on fire in the hours before the ship sank in the Black Sea on Thursday.
The sinking of the Black Sea fleet flagship was the biggest wartime loss of a naval ship in 40 years – and a huge embarrassment for Russia.
The images show the Moskva listing to one side, with black holes from possible missile puncture marks, and significant scarring at and just above the waterline on the port (left) side in the middle of the vessel.
A large plume of black smoke can be seen billowing upwards, partly obscuring the front of the stricken ship.
Analysts who spoke to CNN confirmed that the warship in the images looked like the Moskva, a Slava Class guided-missile destroyer and the flagship of Russian’s Black Sea fleet.
Ukraine and Russia have provided conflicting accounts of what happened during Thursday’s incident in the Black Sea.
Moscow has denied the Ukrainian version of events – that the Moskva sunk after being struck by Ukrainian missiles – but it admitted the ship went down. Russia has insisted the reason for the sinking was a fire, but the US on Friday confirmed Ukraine’s account, with a senior defense official saying that the US believes that two Ukrainian Neptune missiles hit the Russian warship.
Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center told CNN on Monday it was likely the missiles penetrated below the ship’s bridge and detonated.
“Assuming the photo is not faked in some way or photo-shopped, it looks like the missile(s) hit forward, which is not unexpected,” he said. “Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) tend to go for the center of the radar return, which typically is the forward section of the superstructure.”
Independent defense analyst and author, H I Sutton, told CNN the damage shown on the photos “does not rule out a missile strike(s), and it remains the likely cause.”
“Possible puncture marks in the side of the hull are visible below where the fire is. But these would need closer examination to confirm whether they were caused by missiles or are simply fire damage,” he said.
The Moskva was armed with a range of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as torpedoes, naval guns and missile defense systems, meaning it would have had large amounts of explosives aboard.
The Russian military has not released any information about casualties aboard the Moskva.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a video Saturday showing what was described as officers and sailors of the sunken warship standing in formation two rows deep. The number of sailors in formation was not clear. It was unclear how many crew members were aboard, or how many survived.
Sutton says the images show that all the life rafts have been deployed, “All of the aft life raft canisters have been jettisoned, although one remains on the aft deck. This suggests that the crew have already abandoned ship at this point,” he said.
A large Russian rescue tug can be seen dousing the warship with water on the far side.
The Kremlin on Monday said it had seen the photos of the Moskva, but that they could not verify them. “Yes, we really saw the footage, but we cannot say how authentic and true it is,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
A senior US defense official who said that they had also seen the photos and video of the ship burning told CNN Monday the US “can’t independently verify those images.”
“But the images themselves comport with what we had assessed to be the damage done to the ship,” the official said.
The photographers of the images and video are unknown, but they were taken from a vessel close to the stricken warship. In the short video taken from the same vantage point a voice from an unseen person can be heard shouting in Russian: “F**k (inaudible) what you did!”
The Moskva was one of Russia’s most visible assets in the Ukraine war and its loss could impact the morale of Russian troops.
Tellingly, the Russian government has not acknowledged casualties in the sinking of the ship, a marked contrast to the very public discussion about the Kursk submarine disaster, which claimed the lives of 118 sailors in 2000.
Analysts say the loss of the warship would have struck hard at the heart of the Russian navy as well as national pride, comparable to the US Navy losing a battleship during World War II or an aircraft carrier today.
“Only the loss of a ballistic missile submarine or the Kutznetsov (Russia’s lone aircraft carrier) would inflict a more serious blow to Russian morale and the navy’s reputation with the Russian public,” Schuster said.