A huge Russian cruiser sunk off the coast of Ukraine could have been carrying nuclear weapons when it went down, Ukrainian experts have said.
The warship Moskva, a key piece in Russia’s assault on southern cities including Mariupol and Odessa, was being towed to a port when it sank on Wednesday, which the Ukrainian military claims was the result of a successful missile strike.
The 12,490-tonne vessel is the biggest Russian warship to be sunk during active service since World War Two.
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It previously made headlines when its crew were filmed being told to ‘go f*** yourself’ by Ukrainian defenders on the tiny Black Sea outpost of Snake Island after threatening to shell them.
The Kremlin initially denied reports of the sinking, claiming a fire had broken out on board and had been safely extinguished.
Late on Thursday, Putin’s defence officials finally admitted to the loss but insisted that it sank due to ‘stormy sea conditions’, and that the fire had been sparked by an accidental detonation of ammunition hours earlier.
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Russian state news agencies said the Moskva’s ‘main weapon’ is a set of 16 Soviet-era Vulkan P-1000 missile launchers.
These missiles can be fitted with regular explosive munitions or a 350,000-tonne nuclear warhead, although it’s not known whether both are required to be carried on all missions.
Security expert Mykhailo Samus, Deputy Director of International Affairs at Ukraine’s Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, said he believed the ship was fitted to carry two nuclear warheads.
Writing on Facebook, he added: ‘They could have been unequipped and stored in a protected area, so most likely they were not damaged by [the] explosion.’
Andrii Klymenko, chief editor of Ukraine’s BlackSeaNews portal, said other unnamed sources had confirmed there were two such warheads on board.
He called on the UN to launch an urgent investigation to locate the shipwreck and recover any nuclear weapons onboard.
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The CIA’s director, William Burns, warned earlier this week that a ‘desperate’ Putin may be plotting to use tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons in light of his military setbacks.
The Kremlin placed its nuclear forces on ‘high alert’ days after launching its invasion, and threatened to deploy atomic weaponry near Finland if the Finnish and Swedish governments join Nato.
However Mr Burns added that intelligence officials have not seen ‘a lot of practical evidence’ of deployments with nuclear capabilities.
The Ukrainian military claims it used drones to distract the Moskva’s crew before firing two Neptune cruise missiles at the ship as it was being towed towards the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
Residents of the city told local media they saw the ship pause some way out at sea before vanishing and that there was ‘no storm’ at the time.
Andrey Sokolov told Fontanka News: ‘The waves were 0.5 to 1.5 metres, from 2 points (“weak waves”) to 4 points (“moderate waves”), respectively, on a 9-point scale.
‘In a word, it was not calm, of course, but there was no serious sea disturbance in the area of the sunken cruiser Moskva.’
Photo Credit: Getty