On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian warships appeared off a small rock in the Black Sea. Snake Island was, it turned out, minimally defended. But it is strategically located and could potentially provide intelligence to Ukrainian forces about shipping in the area. And taking the island could be symbolic of Russia’s expected victory.
History will remember the reaction of the defenders. Border guard Roman Hrybov famously replied to demands to surrender “Russian warship, go F*** yourself!“. The warship sitting off the island was none other than Moskva, the most powerful warship in the Black Sea.
A Slava class cruiser, Moskva is imposing in both size and armament. She is also, naturally, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Once the island was taken, and Moskva settled in to a wartime routine.
Using open source intelligence (OSINT), we have pieced together her areas of operation during the war so far. Although we only have periodic snapshots, patterns have emerged. The analysis was made with the help of independent analyst Damien Symon and others.
The Slava Class
The Russian Navy’s concept of a cruiser is different from carrier-centric U.S. Navy’s. Instead of escorting their own aircraft carrier, the Slavas are intended primarily to attack enemy carriers. This influences their design which is built around 16 supersonic anti-ship missiles. These were originally the P-500 Bazalt type but have since been upgraded to the longer-ranged P-1000 Vulkan. Both missiles are known as the SS-N-12 Sandbox to NATO.
With no aircraft carriers or other high value targets in the Black Sea the Vulkan missiles are not very relevant. But Moskva has another major weapon system which may be more useful. And it may directly affect where she is operating. The Slava class carries 64 S-300F Rif air defense missiles.
These long-ranged weapons allow her to cover most of the northern black sea from her patrol areas. This is likely part of an overlapping defensive zone with S-400 missiles based at Sevastopol. And possibly other similar systems deployed elsewhere on Crimea.
Snake Island, Home Base And Power Demonstration
Early in the war Moskva was principally operating in the vicinity of Snake Island. This was a relatively stand-off position relative to ongoing battles, and some distance from the strategic target of Odesa.
Odesa, also written Odessa, is Ukraine’s principle Black Sea port and is believed to have been an early objective of the Russian Advance. It is strategically and economically important. Capturing Odesa would make Ukraine almost landlocked. And likely connect to another strategic objective, creating a land bridge to Transnistria. This is a Russian backed unrecognized breakaway state in Moldova.
An early amphibious assault on Odesa did not materialize however. The most likely explanation is that the advance overland from Crimea was held up. Additionally the waters near Odesa are known to be mined.
From March 2 Russian warships began conducting intimidation missions close to Odesa. And they were possibly involved in a number of attacks on merchant ships, effectively creating a blockade. We have not seen any evidence that Moskva took an active part. Instead she remained further offshore.
An older warship, Moskva is not armed with land attack cruise missiles. The Kalibr missile, analogous to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk, came later. So unlike other ship types she has not played a direct role in the period barrage of cruise missiles launched against Ukraine.
Moskva, and virtually all Russian warships, periodically returned to their home port of Sevastopol on Crimea. Interestingly, she berthed in her usual position, creating a predictable pattern of movements. This may be an indicator of how Sevastopol is seen as safe from attack. It is true that it is out of range of Ukrainian missiles, and defended by layered air defenses. There has been one air defense incident over the city, when S-400 missiles were launched on March 26. This does not appear to have changed Moskva’s pattern.
As the war progressed the Russian Navy began conducting large-scale amphibious demonstrations. This involved sailing around six landing ships towards Odesa as if to conduct an assault. But then diverting at the last moment. These exercises tie up Ukrainian forces and act as a deception.
Moskva has been observed in both of the main documented examples of this. First on March 15 and then on March 30. There may be other unseen occasions. Here Moskva was surrounded by other warships or again, providing area protection from a position further out. It is intuitive that Moskva has played a command role in these operations.
As the most powerful warship in the Black Sea Fleet, and as flagship, Moskva is likely to continue to play these roles. Armed with stand-off air defenses, she is likely to remain mostly out of sight. But with Open Source Intelligence, we are able to track her much of the time.