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How Russia losing its Black Sea flagship Moskva could reverberate in Syria

Pro-Russian supporters wave flags as they welcome missile cruiser Moskva.

The flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva, sank on April 15 after Russian forces tried to tow it to Sevastopol in Crimea. According to representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the cruiser was seriously damaged by a fire on the ship and an explosion of ammunition.

The exact number of sailors who died on the ship is unknown.

In turn, Ukraine insists that the cruiser was sunk by two Ukrainian coastal-based Neptune anti-ship missiles.

"This is a big blow to the Black Sea fleet, this is … a key part in their efforts to execute some sort of naval dominance in the Black Sea," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN. “This is going to have an effect on their capabilities.”

Kirby noted that the United States could not confirm the exact cause of the ship's sinking.

"We're also not in any position to refute the Ukrainian side of this," he added. "It's certainly plausible and possible that they did in fact hit this with a Neptune missile or maybe more."

It is important to note that Moskva — before being overhauled in 2016 — repeatedly led the Russian military squadrons in the Mediterranean Sea, which were equipped primarily with ships of the Black Sea Fleet. However, it’s up for debate whether the demise of the cruiser can weaken the Russian grouping in the Mediterranean Sea and Russia's ability to project force in Syria.

The ship entered service in 1982 and can now be considered dated, and its armament also reflects those from the last century. Yet, while participating in the Russian campaign in Syria, the Moskva cruiser played an important role in providing air defense to the Russian bases in Khmeimim and Tartus in Syria. Armed with a long-range anti-aircraft missile system, the Moskva cruiser significantly strengthened the air defense of the Russian group in Syria against the background of the crisis in relations with Turkey in 2015, after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian front-line bomber.

At the same time, the air defense systems of the ship, which are analogues of the land-based S-300 air defense systems, despite their long range, no longer meet modern requirements and needed to be replaced.

Ilya Kramnik, a researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations RAS (or IMEMO RAS), told Al-Monitor, “In recent years, the main load of the Russian presence in the Mediterranean Sea has been borne by new frigates (Krivak IV class, Project 11356R / M) and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet. Moskva underwent repair in 2016, and after it did not go anywhere [outside the Black Sea].”

Russian Type 11356 frigates are armed with Caliber cruise missiles and can attack targets deep in enemy territory, while the Moskva cruiser's strike missile system included only ship-to-ship missiles and cannot hit land targets. Therefore, from the point of view of offensive capabilities, the loss of the cruiser did not reduce the combat capability of the Russian Middle Eastern group.

If indeed the Moskva was sunk by the Neptune SCRC, this could open a new page on the use of such missile systems capable of sending cruiser-class ships to the bottom of the sea. Russia has similar systems; for example, the Bastion SCRC with a larger range than the Neptune. If these types of weapons get to Iran or the Houthis, they could be used to block the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb. As the case of the cruiser Moskva shows, identifying the locations of these missiles on the coast before they are used can be difficult.

The closure of the Black Sea straits by Turkey for all warships has posed challenges to Moscow’s ability to ensure the activities of its contingent in Syria, although Turkish airspace is still accessible to Russian aircraft heading to Syria.

Early supply and replenishment of Russian forces in Syria was carried out through the so-called “Syrian Express” — a term used in the Russian media to describe regular trips of Russian landing ships to Syria. Now, most of the Russian tank landing ships, including those from the Baltic and Northern Fleets, have been stuck in the Black Sea during the Russian war in Ukraine, after the straits were closed. Moreover, the supply of the Russian group in Syria was carried out through the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

In addition, at least one Russian amphibious assault ship (the Orsk or Saratov) was reportedly sunk and several more damaged in the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk on the Sea of ​​Azov, where they were delivering reinforcements and subjected to Ukrainian missile attack. Therefore, after the opening of the Black Sea straits, Russia will be able to begin to experience a shortage of landing craft to supply its Syrian group.

Yet Kamran Hasanov, an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council and a senior lecturer at PFUR, argues that the closure of the straits for Russia is not a big problem for supplying its Syrian group. Hasanov told Al-Monitor that while the straits were closed to warships, everything needed can be delivered to Syria on civilian ships, both from the Black Sea and from the Baltic and other Russian ports. In addition, an air bridge is in operation, which is able to quickly deliver all the necessary cargo.

It should also be taken into account that in the event of a sharp escalation of the situation in Syria, Russia will be able to quickly increase not only its air force grouping in Syria but also send its airborne troops there. Iran and Iraq did not close their airspace to Russia, including for the purpose of using it to support operations in Syria. In fact, these same states are also taking a benevolent position in the current conflict. Baghdad and Tehran abstained from voting on a resolution condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine at the UN General Assembly.

During the January mass riots and unrest in Kazakhstan, Russia was able to demonstrate the ability to quickly deliver a significant number of troops and military equipment using exclusively military transport aircraft. Then, at the request of the government of Kazakhstan, the CSTO mobile forces were quickly deployed to the republic, the core of which was Russian paratroopers from the 45th separate guards brigade for special purposes, the 98th guards airborne division and the 31st guards airborne assault brigade. Their transfer and supply was provided by more than 70 Il-76 military transport aircraft and five An-124s.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind that during this period, preparations were already underway for a military operation against Ukraine and the concentration of Russian troops on the western borders. Nevertheless, Moscow was able to successfully conduct an operation in Kazakhstan parallel to its deployment of forces near the borders with Ukraine. It cannot be ruled out that in this case, the possibility of simultaneously conducting several military campaigns in different regions and the rapid transfer of mobile forces to threatened areas was purposefully worked out. This experience can also be used by Moscow in the event that there is a threat to its positions in Syria or a threat to the Assad regime.

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