My career as a journalist was put on hold by two major naval disasters: on May 2, 1982, the sinking of the Argentine navy cruiser Belgrano and, 40 years later, the sinking of April 14 of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy.
The British sinking of the Belgrano, a month after the start of the Falklands War, had a major impact on the war. With the loss of 323 sailors, the sinking was a punch in the guts for Argentine public opinion. For the military, this deadly display of British submarine power brought the Argentine Navy out of the war. After the sinking of the Belgrano, Argentine ships never again ventured out of port.
Ukraine’s successful missile attack on the Moskva, a missile cruiser twice the length of an American football field, may well have a similar impact. This could remove the Russian Navy from the chessboard for the rest of the Ukraine-Russia war.
After the Russian army failed to take kyiv last month, its navy has now been humiliated in the eyes of the world.
Last week’s sinking of the Moskva, the most powerful Russian ship in the Black Sea, was no fluke.
Three years ago, this Soviet-built warship was upgraded with six radar systems and three surface-to-air and anti-aircraft systems. The pride of the Black Sea Fleet, Moskva had a key role in providing anti-aircraft protection for amphibious assaults on Odessa.
But, the Ukrainian military eluded protection aboard the Moskva and hit the Moskva with two Neptune missiles fired from near Odessa – 60 miles away. For anyone who has lived in Kyiv over the past few years, like me, Ukraine’s development and testing of the Neptune anti-ship missiles was common knowledge. But these missiles had never been used in real combat.
How did Ukraine do it?
The Ukrainians fired their anti-wave missiles on a stormy day, at a time when radar operators had difficulty distinguishing waves from rockets. The Ukrainian military also teased the Moskva from the south with two Turkish-made Bayraktar killer drones. This diverted the Moskva’s main radar, which had only 180 degree visibility, away from Odessa. There is no evidence that the Russians even activated their anti-missile systems.
Incompetence did the rest. Russian Navy sailors had apparently not been trained in damage control procedures. They didn’t launch a counter-flood. This would have pumped seawater into the starboard side compartments, allowing the ship to maintain an even keel. A photo shows a standing Russian Navy tug unable to tow the Moskva to Sevastopol.
And then, although the Moskva took about 12 hours to sink, it is not known how many sailors abandoned the ship. A Turkish boat picked up 54 sailors. It is unclear what happened to the remaining 431 sailors. According to a report, their cars are still in the parking lot of the Navy in Sevastopol.
After the sinking of the Moskva, Russia blamed the sinking on fires on board.
But actions speak louder than words. Immediately after the Moskva caught fire, the Russian Navy warships changed course and headed for points 100 miles or more south of the Ukrainian coast, out of range of the Neptunes.
Two days after the sinking of the Moskva, Russian cruise missiles bombed Luch Design Bureau, the missile factory in kyiv which manufactures the Neptune missiles. And today, analysis of satellite photos indicates that around 40 Russian Navy ships are now clustered in the port of Sevastopol.
For the Russian people, the loss of a warship bearing the name of the national capital is a psychological blow. Russia hasn’t lost a ship its size in combat since World War II, and hasn’t lost a flagship since the sinking of the Knyaz-Suvorov in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago. .
For Ukrainians, the sinking is a big moral boost. The sinking came two days after Ukraine issued a postage stamp showing a soldier raising his middle finger towards the Moskva. On February 24, the Moskva approached Snake Island, a Ukrainian island in the Black Sea, demanding a Ukrainian surrender. The Ukrainian commander retorted “Russian warship, fuck you”. The stamp has sold over a million copies.
Russia now, Argentina next
In Argentina, 40 years ago, a naval disaster foreshadowed a land disaster that struck the Argentine army on the Falkland Islands.
At the time of the sinking of the Belgrano, I was the South American correspondent for the Miami Herald. Three days earlier, on April 29, 1982, the US Senate had voted overwhelmingly to support Britain in its dispute over the islands in the South Atlantic.
The next morning, an Argentine army colonel ordered me at gunpoint to leave Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city. I drove my rental car north through Patagonia, then took a bus to Punta Arenas, the Chilean port of the Cape of Good Hope.
There, the Cabo de Hornos hotel was buzzing with British television crews and British MI6 agents. The day after my arrival, we learned that the Belgrano had sunk. Initial reports said there was no word on the fate of the 1,104 sailors.
I hitchhiked on a plane chartered by a British television crew. After flying an hour east, we crisscrossed the wreck site, peering out the plane’s windows, looking for life rafts. All we saw was a desolate, black ocean. It seemed all the more desolate as the Antarctic winter was rapidly ending.
Over the next two days, Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 772 men from the life rafts. Despite these valiant rescue efforts, 323 sailors died in the sinking. Ultimately, this was half of the total of 649 Argentines killed during the entire war.
On Argentina’s home front, the sinking began to embitter people about the war of the military junta.
Four days after Argentina surrendered to Britain on June 14, 1982, mass protests forced Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri, an army general, to resign. Civilian rule was restored and elections were held. Galtieri was tried and sentenced to 12 years for his mismanagement of the war.
In Russia this spring, the stakes are just as high. Putin is not just fighting to win his war. He is fighting to save his presidency.