The battlecruiser HMS Hood was known as ‘The Mighty Hood.’ This sobriquet was reflective not only of the immense firepower she carried, but also of her prestige. She was not only a symbol of the Royal Navy, but one of the entire British Empire and all its glory. A proud and powerful peacock, adored by Britons and feared by her enemies. Hood’s death while hunting the Bismarck in Denmark Strait on 24 May, 1941 was a devastating blow to the Royal Navy and caused deep trauma across Great Britain. In some ways the Royal Navy never fully recovered from the loss of fabled battlecruiser. Six months later, the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor. Over the next three and a half years, the mantle of preeminent global naval power shifted to the US Navy, which continues to enjoy unmatched naval dominance on the oceans of the world to this day.
The Russian warship Moskva didn’t come close to matching HMS Hood’s prestige. An almost forty-year old Slava class cruiser, he was commissioned towards the end of the Cold War era and carried considerable firepower for a surface combatant. As flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, Moskva was a symbol of Russian naval power, though not to the degree Hood was for the British. Hood was a ship many Britons felt a deep attachment to. It’s not likely that many people aside from current sailors, naval officers and veterans of the Russian Navy were familiar with Moskva, even though he was the pride of Russia’s navy. But now that she has been gone under, Moskva will be mourned and grieved by the entire country.
Moskva’s loss, whether due to a shipboard fire or enemy action, is a significant blow to Russia at an already difficult point in the war. Morale will be negatively affected at the very least. Realistically speaking though, now Russia’s naval operations need an immediate refurbishing if Moskva was in fact the victim of a Ukrainian attack. The nation’s pride will be more difficult to repair, though Russia has already taken the first steps towards seeking reciprocity. The military factory responsible for producing Neptune anti-ship missiles was attacked last night outside Kiev.
Militarily, the effect Moskva’s sinking will have on operations remains to be seen. Long term, it will be interesting to see if the cruiser’s loss marks the imminent demise of Russian sea power, or if the disaster brings on needed changes and reform to the Russian fleet. Hood’s loss brought on a moment of truth for the Royal Navy and now eighty-one years later the Russian Navy, as well as the nation it serves, faces a similar moment.
International attention is centering on the Black Sea region following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships at the entrance to the Sea of Azov. The incident is in the process of blossoming into a crisis, and there is no sign of it coming to an end anytime soon. Relations between Russia and Ukraine were already at an all-time low before Sunday’s seizure. Now they appear poised to deteriorate even further as the prospect of a larger conflict looms in the distance if the current crisis is not deescalated soon.
On Monday martial law was officially imposed on 10 of the nation’s 27 regions, mainly those with areas bordering Russia. President Petro Poroshenko had issued a decree for a 30-day period of martial law after the seizure. He claims the measure will ‘strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amid increasing aggression.’ Whether this is the case or not remains to be seen.
International reaction to the crisis has uniformly condemned Russia’s actions. There has also been talk of imposing fresh sanctions on Russia as punishment, however, so far nothing has come of it. Particularly strong condemnations came from the European Union, and the United States. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called Sunday’s incident an ‘Outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.’ President Trump’s statement was somewhat more subdued, but he indicated he’s not happy what is events in the region. Trump is expected to meet with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 Summit in Buenos Aires later this week. His refusal to openly condemn Russia’s actions now is likely a calculated move not to tip his hand before he sits down with Putin.
Along with the three ships, Russian security forces also took 24 Ukrainian sailors into custody. They are being held on Crimea. A court has ordered two of the sailors to be held for 60 days, according to media reports. Those sailors, as well as the rest, are being treated as criminals, not as prisoners of war. The Ukrainian government is calling for the immediate release of the sailors, and ships, though it seems unlikely that Kiev’s demands will produce the desired results anytime soon. If at all.
The tense situation in the Sea of Azov have finally spilled over following a gradual rise in tensions over the past six months. Today, Russia blocked all maritime traffic beneath the Crimea Bridge which spans the Kerch Strait. The strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The reason behind the closure was the approach of Ukrainian naval vessels. Kiev failed to give notice that the ships were planning to use the strait, according to Russia. The Ukrainian government denied this and called the Russian move “an act of aggression aimed at deliberately escalating the situation in the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.”
The incident began when a Russian coast guard vessel allegedly rammed a Ukrainian tug boat. The tug was escorting a pair of Ukrainian Navy artillery boats from Odessa to Mariupol. Accusations were traded between Kiev and Moscow. After the incident between the ships, Russia closed the strait, and seized the Ukrainian ships shortly thereafter.
An agreement signed in 2003 gives both Russia and Ukraine rights to the Sea of Azov, though Russia controls both sides of the strait. Throughout most of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there has been no overt action by Russia to restrict Ukrainian seaborne commerce in and around Crimea, and the eastern Black Sea. That policy appears to have come to an end today.
The Kerch Strait is closed for business.
Author’s Note: I’ll post more about this tomorrow, and as events play out through the week.
High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.
The readiness issue has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.
In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.
Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.