This is Hot Mic and I'm Nidhi Razdan.
It's been more than 50 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. Vladimir Putin believed he would get Kyiv to surrender within five days Things clearly have not quite turned out the way he had hoped. Russia has suffered a series of military setbacks in recent weeks. The biggest was the sinking of its flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, last week, which now lies at the bottom of the sea. The 600-foot, 12,500-tonne vessel is by no means small. Ukraine says that it destroyed the ship with its state-of-the-art Neptune missiles. Russia, however, claims that the vessel went down because of a fire on board, which involved ammunition stored in the hull. Either way, the sinking of the Moskva is a significant event. Equipped with surface-to-air missiles, the ship provided long-range and mobile air defence for all of Russia's fleet in the Black Sea.
This includes Russian cruisers, frigates, missile corvettes and amphibious landing ships capable of carrying thousands of troops. This entire fleet is now more vulnerable to an attack without the protective cover and firepower of the Moskva. Around 500 Russian sailors were on board the Moskva, and most are believed to have been safely evacuated by the Russians. Neither Russia nor the Americans have commented on the number of possible casualties on board, or if there are any at all. If indeed the Ukrainians did manage to strike the ship with their missiles, it would be a huge blow to Russia. At least symbolically, if nothing else.
The sinking is an embarrassment to the mighty Russians, especially at a time when the morale of its troops has reportedly been low, and Ukraine has scored a major propaganda point. Ukraine's Defence Ministry, meanwhile, has claimed that it's killed about 20,000 Russian soldiers and officers of the Russian army. A claim, that has not been independently verified. A Kremlin spokesperson has acknowledged that Russia has suffered what he called "significant losses of troops" in Ukraine, but did not provide a specific number of casualties. The sinking of the mighty Moskva also busts the myth of invincibility of the Russian military. At the same time, it has lifted the spirit of the Ukrainians who are fighting a David versus Goliath battle. But experts are divided on whether this would make much of a military impact. So far, Russia's Navy has not really been used in the war, though there has been speculation that the Moskva was going to be used in an attack on the Ukrainian region of Odessa. Otherwise, Russia has mainly used its aircraft and land-based systems for attacks.
The Pentagon says Moscow's naval component to the war has largely been limited to two efforts - the replenishment and resupply of troops efforts in the South and some cruise missile strikes on Ukraine. But domination of the Black Sea is actually very important for Russia and this is key. It is a stepping stone, the Black Sea that is, to the Mediterranean for Russia. It's also a strategic buffer between NATO and Russia. Since 2014, Russia has been aiming to gain total control of the Black Sea since it annexed Crimea. That is why they have pushed to capture the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the breakaway eastern region of Donetsk Oblast. Mariupol is on the verge of falling to Russia. And that would be a significant movement forward for the Russians. Military experts say that the capture of Mariupol will give Russia control of more than 80% of the Ukrainian Black Sea coastline and cut off its maritime trade. And if the Odessa region were to fall as well, then Ukraine would lose access to its entire Black Sea coastline and would be reduced to a landlocked country. That would be devastating for its economy.
The loss of the Moskva ship can also propel the Russians into actually increasing their attacks on Ukraine as has been witnessed in recent days. It is also clear, however, that Russia has scaled back and changed its goalpost in the country. When they first invaded Ukraine in February, it was done from three separate directions - there was the north, the east and the south. But as the war progressed, Putin realized that he needed to cut his losses and his top officials have since said that the aim is to focus on liberating the eastern region of Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for the past eight years or so. However, the West is also worried that a desperate Putin could use nuclear weapons. The CIA director has said recently that "none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons." Tactical and low-yield nuclear weapons refer to those that are designed for use on the battlefield, of which some experts estimate that Russia has about 2,000 that can be delivered by air, naval, and ground forces. Ukraine has been aided by the West as far as its military is concerned.
The US has also announced another $800 million in military aid just last week. But President Zelensky says that he needs much more to ward off an aggressive Russian attack in the east. CNN reports that the latest aid includes 18 155mm Howitzer cannons and 40,000 artillery rounds but there is concern that this is all going to finish in a matter of days as heavy fighting intensifies in the Donbass region. Russia has also warned the State Department that there would be, what it called, "unpredictable consequences" if the US and its allies continue to send in heavier duty weaponry that Ukraine has sought. It is for this reason that the US has to assess how far it can go in aiding Ukraine militarily without allowing the conflict to escalate and become even bigger.