2 Years on, Ukraine’s Sinking of the Moskva Intrigues China’s Naval Strategists

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

2 Years on, Ukraine’s Sinking of the Moskva Intrigues China’s Naval Strategists

Can studying combat in the Black Sea improve the battle-readiness of the PLA Navy?

2 Years on, Ukraine’s Sinking of the Moskva Intrigues China’s Naval Strategists

A Ukrainian serviceman walks by a poster of a Ukrainian postal stamp showing sunken Russian ships and a depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 15, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks recent major combat experience. It has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.

Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies.

To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military-industrial complex.

This exclusive series for The Diplomat represents the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains. Read the rest of the series here.

The sinking of the Moskva two years ago seems to have made a major impression on Chinese naval strategists.

It’s paradoxical that the maritime theater of conflict has turned out to be one of the few bright spots for Kyiv in the conflict following from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since Ukraine has no navy to speak of. Nevertheless, it has made the Kremlin pay a steep price for aggression and has now sunk or disabled an impressive one-third of all the warships of Russia’s vaunted Black Sea Fleet. This warship “massacre” began in earnest two years ago, when on April 14, 2022, Ukraine succeeded in sinking the missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, striking an enormous psychological blow against the Russian invasion.

As we’ve noted in this series of articles, Chinese military strategists have been watching the Ukraine War closely, and events in the Black Sea, with special attention. Why would China be interested in uncovering the secrets of Ukraine’s success against a much larger fleet? Certainly, they are concerned that their own navy, which has grown impressively over the past decade, could also be vulnerable to similar asymmetric tactics. 

For that reason, it is quite interesting to examine a very detailed and exceptionally candid appraisal of the sinking of the Moskva that appeared in one of China’s leading naval strategy magazines, Shipborne Weapons (舰载武器), published by an institute affiliated with the major shipbuilding conglomerate, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. The article implies that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Chinese shipbuilders are seeking to learn lessons from Ukraine’s successful campaign against the Black Sea Fleet.

The article is accompanied by 10 high-quality images of the stricken Moskva from various angles, along with several detailed line drawings of the missile cruiser’s design, implying a rather clinical approach. That should not be surprising, since Chinese naval strategists may also have to contend with Western anti-ship weapons and related tactics. But perhaps more to the point, the basis of the modern Chinese navy could be described as “neo-Soviet” in nature. 

The PLAN has far outstripped Russia’s maritime achievements in many respects, not least in the building and fielding of aircraft carriers. However, it was Russian naval designs, and especially sensors and weapons, that initially enabled the Chinese navy’s “great leap” into the 21st century. Therefore, the sinking of the Moskva hit close to home, so to speak, for Beijing’s naval strategists.

The Chinese author reports some skepticism that the Moskva was truly sunk by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, noting that this missile has only a 550 kg warhead – enough to sink a small warship, but not necessarily one of this size. The possibility is suggested that the actual missiles employed in the attack were U.S-made Harpoons (although that weapon does not appear to have a larger warhead). The scenario that the ship hit a sea mine is also briefly evaluated, especially since the Moskva is seen as listing badly in the photos, implying it could have been taking on a large volume of seawater from a hull breach below the water line. 

Ultimately, the author does seem to come around to reluctantly accept the more conventional explanation of the likely cruise missile hits. The analysis relates that these missiles would likely have been fed precise targeting information from a NATO “secret base” in the Odessa region that is alleged to be tracking all Russian warships within 200 km, including through the use of advanced drones like the U.S. Global Hawk. It’s also worth noting that this Chinese analysis briefly highlights the ability of NATO forces to deploy diver sabotage units “with advanced equipment” over long distances.

This Chinese rendering rejects the Russian claim that the damaged ship was being towed back to port and sank in bad weather, observing that the weather was not actually stormy. It also dismisses the Russian military’s claim that the entire crew was unharmed as lacking credibility. Evaluating the many detailed pictures accompanying the article, this naval analysis concludes that the ship likely suffered a “fierce explosion and large-scale conflagration” from within the ship.

Although the Chinese analysis gives the crew of the Russian cruiser a little credit for apparently saving the embarked helicopter, the crew nevertheless assumes a “very heavy responsibility” in this rendering for being unable to either defend or then subsequently rescue the damaged ship. With respect to the mission of intercepting two incoming cruise missiles, the Chinese article states crisply: “It could be said that this would be easy to accomplish.” 

Yet, in this same analysis, it is conceded that the ship’s S-300 system actually could not effectively engage the sea-skimming targets below 25 meters. In addition, the Chinese article suggests the ship’s Wasp-M system failed to engage, and the AK-630 close-in weapons system likewise proved ineffective. 

It is emphasized throughout the Chinese analysis that the Moskva was originally commissioned into the Soviet Navy back in 1982, so the old ship suffered “serious defects” and was not a truly modern surface combatant. The article actually references a report from the Chinese naval institute 701 that had previously criticized this specific Russian ship design for poorly integrated weaponry that could not perform effectively. Illustrating that the vessel was truly from a previous era, the author points out the unusual characteristic of this cruiser class is that it carries its heavy armament, the large P-1000 missiles, in bulky canisters, mounted on the deck. This implies an unstable design, especially if the ship was damaged in battle.

This Chinese assessment pulls no punches and even suggests that Russian shipbuilding seems to be afflicted by design and management “malpractice.” The article notes that “after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian navy prioritized development of undersea equipment…” or the submarine force, prompting severe neglect of the surface fleet. 

It goes on to note that Russian shipyards have suffered major fires every couple of years and that Russian ships seem to be impacted every seven to eight years. Neither ship designs nor resources have been sufficient for the Russian Navy’s needs, according to this article. The Moskva apparently was refurbished as recently as 2018, but this Chinese article suggests that it was not upgraded with modern damage-control systems due to resource constraints, and likely suffered major training deficiencies as well.

A substantial contrast is described in this article between the Russian Navy and the world’s leading maritime powers, like the United States and Britain, that both possess navies putting a premium on damage control for warships. These more advanced navies have “experienced large-scale naval combat,” and this is reflected in their warship designs and also their management and training procedures, according to the Chinese analysis. Thus, Royal Navy ships have very extensive fire-fighting protective gear. By contrast, the paucity of equivalent gear in the Russian Navy represents an obvious and perhaps decisive shortcoming. 

Nevertheless, it is explained that even these leading navies have suffered major lapses in recent years. The number of fires aboard U.S. Navy ships, the articles says, has exceeded 15 in the last dozen years, and “this number of fire incidents even exceeds the number [of mishaps] in the Indian Navy.” The article describes the fire that destroyed the amphibious attack ship USS Bonhomme Richard in 2022 as an “awkward situation,” that may demonstrate that USN “damage control procedures have become lax.”

It seems plausible that the dramatic sinking of the Moskva two years ago has already elevated the Chinese navy’s attention to damage control. To be sure, this Chinese analysis could additionally inspire tough questions about the future of the China-Russia maritime partnership. At the same time, it may draw attention to the PLAN’s own genuine lack of large-scale naval combat experience in the modern era.

The author concludes by recommending that the PLAN ensure that fire-fighting equipment is properly allocated to all fleet units. For the shipbuilding community, it is suggested that novel AI technologies can assist with damage control, and also that China must deepen its understanding of real-world damage control experiences. Finally, the Chinese analysis concludes that “modern damage control equipment and strict, daily damage control drills … can effectively reduce the rate of vessel losses in wartime.”