Ukraine says it sank Russian flagship, Moscow denies

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Kyiv: Ukraine said Thursday its forces sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in a missile attack, but Moscow said the vessel was merely damaged, making no mention of an assault.

The loss of the ship would be a major military and symbolic defeat for Russia as its troops regroup for a renewed offensive  in eastern Ukraine after retreating from much of the north, including the capital.

Russia said a fire aboard the Moskva, a warship that would typically have 500 sailors on board, forced the entire crew to evacuate the vessel.

It later said the fire had been contained and that the ship would be towed to port with its guided missile launchers intact.

The ship carries 16 missiles, according to a military analyst, and its removal from combat would greatly reduce Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea.

Regardless of the extent of the damage, any attack would represent a major blow to Russian prestige seven weeks into a war that is already widely seen as a historic blunder.

It was not immediately possible to reconcile the vastly different accounts, and cloud cover made it impossible to locate the ship or determine its condition based on satellite photos.

The news of damage to the ship came hours after some of Ukraine’s allies sought to rally new support for the embattled country.

On a visit with leaders from three other EU countries on Russia’s doorstep who fear they could next be in Moscow’s sights, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda declared that “the fight for Europe’s future is happening here.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden, who called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a genocide” this week, approved $800 million in new military assistance to Kyiv.

He said weapons from the West have sustained Ukraine’s fight so far and “we cannot rest now.”

The news of the flagship’s damage overshadowed Russian claims of advances in the southern port city of Mariupol, where they have been battling the Ukrainians since the early days of the invasion in some of the heaviest fighting of the war — at a horrific cost to civilians.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade surrendered at a metals factory in the city.

But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, rejected the claim, telling Current Time TV that “the battle over the seaport is still ongoing today.”

It was unclear when or over what time period a surrender may have occurred or how many forces were still defending Mariupol.

Russian state television broadcast footage that it said was from Mariupol showing dozens of men in camouflage walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers. One man held a white flag.

Mariupol’s capture is critical for Russia because it would put a swath of territory in its control that would allow its forces in the south, who came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to link up with troops in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland and the target of the coming offensive.

Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukraine in the Donbas since 2014, the same year Russia seized Crimea.

Russia has recognised the independence of the rebel regions in the Donbas.

But the loss of the Moskva, named for the Russian capital, could set those efforts back.

Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC show the Moskva steaming out of the port of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula on Sunday.

Maksym Marchenko, the governor of the Odesa region, across the Black Sea to the northwest of Sevastopol, said the Ukrainians struck the ship with two Neptune missiles and caused “serious damage.”

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, then said the ship sank, calling it an event of “colossal significance.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire, without saying what caused the blaze.

It later said the ship was afloat and would be taken in for repairs. It said its “main missile weapons” were not damaged.

The Neptune is an anti-ship missile that was recently developed by Ukraine and based on an earlier Soviet design.

The launchers are mounted on trucks stationed near the coast, and, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the missiles can hit targets up to 280 kilometers away.

The U.S. was not able to confirm Ukraine’s claims of striking the warship, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday.

“We don’t have the capacity at this point to independently verify that,” he told the Economic Club of Washington. Still, he called it “a big blow to Russia.”

“They’ve had to kind of choose between two stories: One story is that it was just incompetence, and the other was that they came under attack, and neither is a particular the good outcome for them,” Sullivan said.

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