Picture credit to read: Vladimir Putin in front of Black Sea flagship Moskva. Picture Credit: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/RIA NOVOSTI/AFP via Getty Images

The fate of the Moskva

Campaign Diary: The sinking of the decaying Soviet-era warship symbolises Russia’s military malaise

Artillery Row

Throughout the 20th century, opposing forces were often explained in books, magazines and newspapers, by rows of silhouettes. In 1900, global power and reach was portrayed in terms of battleships, or more correctly, dreadnoughts. By 1918, artillery pieces and helmeted men armed with rifles and bayonets had crept onto the charts. In 1940, the graphics had extended to include aircraft and tanks. Fast forward to the Cold War and we find little silhouettes of missiles and aircraft carriers added to the portrayal of NATO versus Warsaw Pact forces. 

The events of 11 September 2001 should have destroyed such notions, when terrorists armed with knives were shown to be as powerful as all the weaponry — silhouetted or not — that a modern state could muster. Since then, it is arguable that a cyber warrior sitting at a desk, or a newscaster pumping out false information, are just as valuable to a country as its conventional weaponry. Today’s graphic designers also need to devise unmistakeable silhouettes for satellites and drones as a way of recording power.

President Vladimir Putin has come to believe his own propaganda

On 24 February 2022, the world reverted to silhouettes to explain the Ukraine-Russian conflict. This was partly because of the numerical disparity between the two. Although varying wildly from source to source, according to CNN journalists, Ukraine possessed 3,309 armoured fighting vehicles (infantry carriers, self-propelled artillery, as well as tanks) against the 15,857 of Russia. The Eastern Goliath could field 1,391 aircraft of all types and 948 helicopters against plucky little David’s 132 planes and 55 copters. Pointlessly Russia’s 49 submarines were depicted against Ukraine’s none; Kyiv’s one frigate against Moscow’s 123 major warships. 

Feed these numbers into a computer and you’d have a pretty convincing win for Russia in a few hours. However, after more than 50 days of fighting, we know otherwise. We should not be surprised, for numbers alone do not explain the military capability of a nation. 

The academic study of war reveals three metrics by which to study a nation’s prowess, via its so-called “Components of Fighting Force”. We’ve just examined the Physical Component, the military assets you can see. The Conceptual Component embraces the doctrine, training and readiness for combat of an army, navy or air force. Both sides had been preparing for a conflict, but it appears now that Ukraine’s education and rehearsals for war, infused with much Western advice, were far more relevant and effective than Russia’s military exercises in muddy Belarus.

The third element is the Moral Component of Fighting Force. We can define this as the will to plunge into combat and the determination, come what may, to win. It is by far the most important aspect, and one which Napoleon described over 200 years ago. He observed astutely that no matter how large your force is, if its morale is poor, you cannot win. “The moral is to the physical as three is to one”, he wrote. Thus, it turns out that our charts of silhouettes add very little value to understanding 21st century warfare.

The trouble is, that locked away in his official home outside Moscow, President Vladimir Putin has come to believe his own propaganda silhouettes. Since 2000, he has lived and worked at his Novo-Ogaryovo presidential palace, a state dacha 20 miles west of Moscow. This avoids commuting into the capital and enabled him to self-isolate during the pandemic.

The 19th century mansion was built by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the brother of Emperor Alexander III, who married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Known as a political hardliner with an inalienable belief in strong, nationalist government, Grand Duke Sergei’s beliefs and his house have been embraced by Putin, who considers it home. He remained in residence when he took his four-year-long break from the presidency in 2008-2012. 

Away from the pulse of Moscow’s ministries and politicians, surrounded by his secretaries, cooks and other personal staff, he is guarded by an elite protection squad, who patrol the 20-foot-high wall that cloaks the perimeter. Lurking there, Putin is as remote from reality as Hitler was at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, or the Wolfsschanze, his “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters near Rastenburg in today’s Poland.

It was at Novo-Ogaryovo that Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer met Putin on 11 April, and a week later from there, the Russian leader bestowed the honorary title of “Guards” on the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade for defending the “Motherland and state interests.” He praised their “mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage”, fully aware that this unit was the one accused by Ukraine of “war crimes” and mass killings in the town of Bucha.

The traditional Bolshevik model of state-condoned corruption

Vladimir Putin obviously finds something safe and soothing about the Novo-Ogaryovo estate, with its extensive woodland, hugging the banks of the Moskva river. Insiders observe that most government conferences are chaired from there via video link, as are the increasing number of sackings of his once faithful circle. Putin’s televised addresses to his nation take place from the desk in Grand Duke Sergei’s old office. By invitation only, the Russian Federation attends the presence of Tsar Vladimir, rather than him visiting his subjects. Once frequent trips into Moscow, or flights to his birthplace and old powerbase of St Petersburg, are now rare. 

The former Kremlin strongman once revelled in exhibiting his black belt prowess in judo, riding and fishing bare-chested in Siberia, or accompanying the Nochnye Volki (Night Wolves), Russia’s black-leathered, anti-gay, pro-Stalin network of 7,000 Harley-Davidson bikers. These days however, Putin seems to have retreated from that world, prey to his own insecurities. 

Ever since he suffered a bad case of flu in 2015, he has insisted that all visitors are checked by thermographic cameras which measure body temperature. Last time the Russian leader was spotted fishing, he was wearing a sober shirt and tie; the macho look had departed.

When he first came to prominence in 1999, initially as acting prime minister to Boris Yeltsin, then president on 31 December of the same year, Putin knew that Russia had slid from being a global player to the status of regional power. Yet even his Soviet forebears, never mind the tsars, had found the infinite vastness of Mother Russia almost impossible to organise. With its 11 time zones, in surface area it equates to half the size of the Moon. 

Instead of growing his country’s GDP through manufacturing and exports, Putin has stuck to the old Soviet staples of weapons, grain, oil and gas. The brain drain to the West of mathematicians and scientists born in the glasnost era, additionally made it hard to modernise. One example was the inability of Russia’s health service, already chronically underfunded, to cope with the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Few had any confidence in Putin’s home-produced Sputnik vaccine; the wealthy fled to the West on “vaccine holidays” for treatment.

Russia’s president soon fell back on the traditional Bolshevik model of state-condoned corruption with high status projects to create the illusion of a world power. Hence consulting his obsolete chart of military silhouettes in order to perpetuate the mirage. Instead of starting afresh, abandoning conscription and moving to well-paid volunteers, the armed forces of the Russian Federation built on what they had inherited — and plundered its assets. 

Russian officials have remained silent on the fate of the crew

Texans would refer to the arrangement as “all hat and no cattle.” The Russians, aware of their shortcomings, call it “bling without the basics”; while Britons more prosaically would talk of “all fur coat and no knickers”. These aphorisms mean that while the Russian military have some superficially impressive weapons, and vast numbers of aircraft, tanks and warships, they are undermanned by unmotivated conscripts and poorly maintained equipment.

Aircrews are nervous of taking to the skies in older aircraft, submariners wonder when, not if, there will be another Kursk disaster. Stories are now surfacing from multiple sources that Russian T-72 tanks are going into battle with a crew of two (instead of three) because corrupt commanders have been claiming the extra salaries of missing personnel. The overworked crew cannot not perform effectively in combat, have little experience in basic vehicle maintenance, and anyway have sold their tool kits. Thus, their huge losses of armour in action.

In so many ways the story of Russia’s navy is a parable of Putin’s misrule. His first major misstep occurred on 12 August 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk suffered a catastrophic explosion from a defective torpedo and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea. International help was immediately offered but rejected on the basis that a Russian Navy rescue was about to succeed. It didn’t. Instead, officials misled and manipulated the public and media, and at one stage claimed the sinking was the result of a collision with a US submarine. Putin initially continued his vacation at a seaside resort and only authorised acceptance of British and Norwegian assistance after five days. By then, all 118 crew had perished. 

A similar tale of official obscuration has accompanied the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea flagship. An obvious target for Ukrainian-made, truck-launched R-360 “Neptune” cruise missiles, the West is certain two of these hit the vessel on the night of 13 April. After an extensive fire, it was abandoned and sank the following morning. The Kremlin announced that a “fire onboard caused ammunition stocks to detonate, prompting an evacuation of the crew, and the ship later sank due to poor weather, while being towed to port”. Implying the catastrophe was the result of an accident rather than Ukrainian missiles, Russian officials have remained silent on the fate of the crew, while orbiting satellites can find no trace of the storm.

For Ukraine, the importance of the story is less the destruction of the cruiser and more the agents of its destruction. The Neptune is based on an old Soviet munition and made in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The sea-skimming missile was invented to sink ships of up to 12,000 tons – the Moskva displaced 11,490 – and designed to evade the Russian S-300 air-defence systems, and long-range radar carried by the Moskva class of cruisers. 

Thus, designed soon after Russia seized the Crimea in 2014, the anti-ship cruise missile, planned specifically to kill the Moskva, found its target. With its range of 200 miles, every warship within range of the Ukrainian coast now runs the risk of the wrath of the Roman sea god, Neptune. At a stroke the offensive power of Russia’s navy, and thus the threat to Odessa, has been removed. With its own Neptunes, plus deliveries of British-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles, announced on 11 April, it turns out that Ukraine doesn’t need any silhouettes of dreadnoughts, after all.

State media’s contortions over the Moskva, as directed by Putin, reflect the status of the vessel, named after the Russian capital. They precisely echo the obsession displayed by both Stalin and Hitler over the Soviet city of Stalingrad on the banks of the River Volga. An attritional battle that neither side needed to fight during the winter of 1942-3, it cost the two sides a combined total of anything up to two million, killed, wounded or missing, essentially battling for a name. 

Yet the fate of the Moskva underlines a deeper Russian malaise. It was avoidable. Built as the Slava (“Glory”) in the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv, which is currently under Russian attack, she was commissioned in 1983 and renamed Moskva in 1995. Due to undergo a 2-year major overhaul in 2016, this was cancelled “due to lack of funds” and substituted by two and a half months of repairs in 2020. Hardly adequate for a warship over 40 years old. While Russia’s elites possess the most expensive private yachts in the world, its navy deployed the most outdated flagship on the planet.

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