(NewsNation) — U.S. officials confirmed Friday that the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet sank after being struck by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles earlier this week.
A senior defense official told NewsNation the Soviet-era guided missile cruiser known as the Moskva sank after being hit by two Ukrainian cruise missiles about 60 nautical miles south of Odesa.
The loss is seen as a significant blow to Russia’s naval prestige and will almost certainly boost Ukrainian morale.
Confirmation of the attack comes after conflicting reports from Ukrainian and Russian officials, who attributed different causes to the ship’s demise.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials claimed the country’s armed forces had hit the Moskva with missiles, damaging the ship. The next day, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the ship had sunk but denied the attack, instead claiming the Moskva sank in a storm after ammunition caught fire on board.
Despite previous unconfirmed reports suggesting the ship had nuclear weapons on board when it sank, U.S. officials now say they don’t believe there were any.
But even military success comes with additional risk. Intelligence officials fear Russian President Vladimir Putin may be more likely to use nuclear weapons if his losses continue to mount.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” CIA director William Burns said during a speech at Georgia Tech Thursday.
The attitude signals a growing concern in the West that Moscow has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy — a strategy that would sanction the limited use of nuclear weapons to shut Ukraine’s military down and deter NATO from intervening.
“Until now we’ve really not thought of it as being very credible because Russia seemed to be a pretty capable military that wouldn’t put itself in the position of having to do this,” Brian Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said on “NewsNation Prime.” “But the Ukraine fight has shown them to be much less capable than we thought they were.”
“Much of my gray hair comes from dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Burns.
Although the Russian nuclear threat remains a top concern, Burns said he has seen no “practical evidence” suggesting a nuclear attack against Ukraine is imminent.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, evidence of Russian brutality continues to emerge.
More than 900 civilian bodies were discovered in Ukraine’s capital region following the withdrawal of Russian forces, the regional police chief said Friday.