BRUSSELS – Russia’s faltering war against Ukraine suffered two setbacks on Thursday when the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet sank after a catastrophic explosion and fire, as the European Union closed in on a embargo on Russian oil imports.
Ukraine claimed to have hit the ship, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, with two of its own Neptune missiles, while Russia said the explosion was caused by munitions on board the ship. If confirmed, the missile attack would deal a serious blow to Russia, both militarily and symbolically – proof that its ships can no longer operate with impunity, and another blow to morale.
It would also give a boost to Ukrainian hopes, while demonstrating the defenders’ local technological capability and exposing an embarrassing weakness in the Russian Navy’s missile defenses.
Moscow also faces the possible loss of European fossil fuel markets, which provide billions of dollars a month to support its war effort. The European Union has long resisted calls to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, but officials revealed on Thursday that an oil embargo was in preparation and should be adopted in the coming weeks.
This is in addition to a previously announced ban on Russian coal imports. Taken together, these measures are sure to increase fuel and electricity prices in Europe, potentially disrupting the economy and provoking a political backlash.
Ukraine continues to prepare for a Russian offensive in the eastern Donbass region – where Moscow has said it will focus its war efforts after its failure to capture the capital, kyiv – as Russian forces tighten the pocket of resistance in the ruined southern port of Mariupol. The devastation there offered a dire warning of what could happen to other cities in the event of a prolonged Russian siege, prompting a mass exodus of civilians from Donbass.
With its deepening international isolation, the Kremlin reacted ominously to growing indications that Finland and Sweden would join the NATO alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday, the government warned that such an expansion of NATO would lead to an increased Russian military presence, including nuclear weapons, in the region.
CIA Director William J. Burns on Thursday warned of the possibility that Mr. Putin, facing a debacle in Ukraine, could use a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon, while stressing that he would not had seen no “practical evidence” that such a move was pending. It was the first time he had publicly discussed a concern that has been the subject of much debate in the White House.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks they have faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to arms tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said, answering questions after a speech in Atlanta.
Prominent voices in Russian state media have recently made increasingly incendiary statements, calling for more brutality in the battles that have already sparked calls for investigations into war crimes by Russian forces.
Much remained unclear on Russia’s setback in the western Black Sea, where an explosion on Thursday morning – Wednesday evening in the United States – and subsequent fire forced many of the roughly 500 crew of the Moskva to abandon ship. There was no word on the casualties. Ukraine said it hit the ship with two Neptune missiles and sank it.
The Russian Defense Ministry initially said that its sailors had managed to extinguish the fire and that the Moskva, commissioned in 1983, remained afloat. But a few hours later, he said, the ship sank as it was being towed to port in a storm.
Western defense officials said they could not be sure what caused the explosion aboard the 12,000 tonne vessel. Three US officials briefed on the incident said there was every indication he had been hit by missiles. Officials warned that early reports from the battlefield can sometimes change, but expressed deep skepticism about the Russian account of an accidental fire.
Ukraine has stressed the need for coastal defense weapons, and the United States announced this week that it would send more. Pentagon officials said other Russian ships drifted away from the Ukrainian coastline, lending credence to the missile strike claim.
“It’s going to impact their naval capabilities, certainly in the short term,” but the long-term picture is unclear, said Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby, a former rear admiral of the Marine.
Until now, Russian ships could fire missiles at will against coastal cities. They blocked the southern coast of Ukraine and threatened an amphibious landing in the southwestern region. The presence of an effective Ukrainian anti-ship weapon – Ukraine claims the Neptune has a range of around 190 miles – could alter those calculations, although Ukrainian commercial shipping is unlikely to resume anytime soon.
Current and former US naval commanders have said a successful missile attack would represent Russia’s shocking lack of combat readiness.
“That’s not supposed to happen to a modern warship,” said Admiral James G. Foggo III, former commander of the US Sixth Fleet, whose area of operations includes Europe. “If this was a Neptune missile strike, it indicates complacency and the lack of an effective integrated air and missile defense capability.”
Ukraine has endured most of the suffering of the war that began on February 24, with thousands of casualties, widespread destruction and millions displaced, but the backlash on Russia has also been severe. Moscow’s vaunted military has often looked ill-fated, absorbing unexpected heavy losses of men and equipment, while unprecedented sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies have rattled the Russian economy.
President Vladimir V. Putin acknowledged some of that cost on Thursday. in videoconference with senior government officials and leaders in the oil and gas sector, referring to “the disruption of export logistics” in that industry and “setbacks in payments for Russian energy exports”.
Fossil fuels are Russia’s main export, an important part of the Russian economy that employs millions and provides the government with much of the revenue needed to sustain its war machines.
Now EU officials and European diplomats say the bloc is moving towards banning oil imports from Russia, a ban that would be phased in over months to allow countries to organize alternative supplies. They said EU leaders won’t make a final decision until after April 24, when France holds its presidential run-off; a rise in fuel prices could hurt President Emmanuel Macron’s prospects and boost his right-wing opponent, Marine Le Pen, who has praised Mr Putin.
The German government, the most influential country in the European Union, has been particularly reluctant to cut Russian fuel, which would be expensive and could lead to shortages. But pressure from allies and growing evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine gradually overcame this resistance. Germany has refused to allow the nearly completed $10 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to go into operation, backed a coal ban and now appears to be on board with an oil embargo.
Another unintended consequence for Mr Putin is the change in position of neutral Scandinavian states. By waging a war that he says was aimed at keeping Ukraine out of NATO – a distant prospect at best – he may have succeeded in driving two countries that had been firmly non-aligned for generations into the arms of the covenant.
Dmitry A. Medvedev, a senior Russian security official, said Thursday that if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, there would be “no more talks about a nuclear-free Baltic region.” Moscow would be forced to “seriously build up” its air and ground forces in the region, said Medvedev, a former president and prime minister, and could deploy nuclear-armed warships “remotely” from the coasts of Finland and Sweden .
Vladimir Solovyov, a TV host considered one of the main voices of Kremlin propaganda, said on Wednesday that Russia should destroy all Ukrainian infrastructure, including basic public services.
Russia “must bring these terrorists to their senses in the most cruel way”, he said during his broadcast on the public broadcaster Russia-1. “We have to talk differently with terrorists,” he added. “There should be no illusions that they can win.”
Russia forced independent media to shut down or leave the country, and criminalized the Kremlin’s challenge to the war narrative. Yet Margarita Simonyan, the director of state-run news agency RT, said earlier this week that the government should restrict reporting even further.
No major power can exist “without having information in its control”, she said, adding: “we are all waiting for this”.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Richard Perez-Pena from New York. The report was provided by Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troyanovsky from Istanbul, Michael Schwirtz of London, and Helen Cooper, Eric Schmitt David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.