Russia’s been having much harder time of its invasion of Ukraine than anyone — including the Russians — expected, thanks both to the scrappy resistance of Ukrainian fighters and the often surprisingly unsophisticated weapons they’ve been using, whether donated or bought from friendly countries or made in Ukraine itself.
It was a home-brewed Ukrainian weapon — two R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles, to be specific — that may have earned the defenders arguably the most memorably victory of the war so far, the sinking of the Russians’ Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.
Why was the Moskva symbolically important to both sides?
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the launching of a “military special operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine. This took the form of a devastating bombardment of missiles and artillery and a multipronged invasion by Russian army troops.
On that same day, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, accompanied by the patrol ship Vasily Bykov, arrived off tiny Snake Island and demanded the surrender of the 13 soldiers stationed there. One Ukrainian’s response was unfit to print but went viral on the internet. The Russians quickly overran the island but later arranged to release the defenders in exchange for some of their own captured troops.
Launched in 1979 and completed in 1982 as the Slava, the Moskva was one of three cruisers designed to engage U.S. Navy carrier task forces with its missiles, with radar, missiles and automatic cannon for its own protection. On May 15, 1995, it was renamed Moskva (“Moscow”), and although it never loosed a missile in anger throughout the Cold War, it actively supported Russian forces in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015.
The Snake Island sideshow and the rude defiance that marked it became iconic to the Ukrainians, but the conventional wisdom throughout the world was that the entire nation would, like Snake Island’s garrison, have to surrender or face destruction in a matter of days. Two months later, however, the Russian army had suffered setbacks on all fronts and had been driven from the large city of Lviv, while the surrounded remnants of Ukrainian forces in the seemingly doomed port city of Mariupol were still stubbornly fighting on. Even with what their government regards as slow, limited access to Western-supplied weaponry, the Ukrainians have made the most of the weaponry they possess to inflict disproportionate punishment on their antagonists.
On April 3, Ukrainian defiance took the form of more than obscene gestures when the Russian frigate Admiral Essen was damaged at sea. Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the office of the president of Ukraine, claimed that it had been hit by a Ukrainian-made anti-ship guided missile called the Neptune. The Russians made no comment, but the missile in question, introduced to the Ukrainian armed forces little more than a year earlier, was about to take its own place in history.
Made with Russia in mind
The decision to develop an indigenous Ukrainian ASM began when Russian troops invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Based on the Russian Kh-35 cruise missile and updated with a number of improvements by the Luch Design Bureau in Kyiv, the R-360 Neptune made its public debut at the 2015 Arms and Security International Exhibition in the Ukrainian capital. Sixteen feet long and weighing 1,920 pounds with a 330-pound warhead, the Neptune could be fired up to 16 miles from the coastline, with a maximum range of 190 miles. Although its 900-kilometer-per-hour speed is subsonic, the missile has the potential to foil enemy radar by flying at altitudes of 10 to 15 meters, or even as low as 3 to 10 meters.
Along with the Neptune itself, Ukraine has produced six USPU-360 mobile launchers, each capable of carrying and firing four missiles. They are backed up by six TZM-360 and six TM-360 transport vehicles, each carrying four additional Neptunes.
Taking on the Moskva
Tested from March 22, 2016 to April 6, 2019, the RK-360MC Neptune was accepted by the Ukrainian navy in March 2021. The ultimate test, however, came on April 13, 2022, when Moskva emerged from its base in Sevastopol and took up a position about 93 miles south of Ukraine’s other principal port, Odesa, at which it launched several of its 16 cruise missiles.
What happened on April 13, 2022, however, remains a matter of who is doing the reporting. What is undisputed is that the Moskva suddenly exploded in flames. The Ukrainians claimed that it had been hit on the port side by two Neptune missiles. The Russians claimed that it caught fire, which reached the ordnance magazine. Neither explanation shed a particularly good reflection on Moskva’s crew in regard to ship defense, damage control or general ship handling. Photographs of the burning ship reveal at least one hole in the port side to indicate a missile hit, but how many were fired remain unknown, along with how at least two could have penetrated Moskva’s considerable defenses.
Additionally, the Russians claimed to have evacuated all of the ship’s 510-man crew, but U.S. Department of Defense and British officials announced that some 400 crewmen had been killed.
One explanation states that the ship’s radar was partially distracted by Turkish-made and supplied Bayraktar reconnaissance drones dispatched by the Ukrainians. Another possible factor was the stormy, rainy and rough weather, which also might have had just enough of an effect for the missiles to get through.
What is known thus far is that after an attempt to tow it back to Sevastopol, the 12,490-ton Moskva sank on April 14, leaving Russian morale shaken and Ukrainian morale much boosted.
As of this writing, the Russian “special military operation” grinds on and the last word on it still lies ahead, but the Neptune’s combat debut, sinking the largest warship to go down in combat since World War II, has already given it a place in history.