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Russian warship is damaged but Ukraine and Russia offer different explanations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukrainian officials are claiming that a Russian warship in the Black Sea was seriously damaged by a Ukrainian missile attack on Wednesday. There is another version, though, of this story. Russia's Ministry of Defence tells a different story of a fire on the missile cruiser that caused ammunition on board to explode. Neither version of these events can be independently confirmed, but both involve a seriously damaged and abandoned Russian warship. Joining us now from near the port city of Odesa, Ukraine, is NPR's Brian Mann. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you learned?

MANN: Well, from both sides, as you're hearing from the Russian and Ukrainian officials we're hearing from today, it sounds like the Moskva was substantially damaged. It did have to be evacuated. This is a large vessel, roughly 500 crew members. And neither story is very favorable to the Russians. They say that there was some kind of accidental fire on board that did reach munitions. They say the fire was eventually contained - but, again, a full evacuation of their crew. What the Ukrainians say, officials here near Odesa, where I am now - they say that they launched a couple of Neptune ship cruise missiles at this vessel and struck it successfully. They're claiming that as a major victory over a ship that they've been wanting to target throughout this conflict.

INSKEEP: Well, let's think through the significance of this. This is a guided missile cruiser. It's got 16, as I understand it, cruise missiles on board. They're ship-to-ship cruise missiles, but you can fire them at land. I've seen videos in recent days of cruise missiles being fired from Russian ships onto land targets. So how significant is it that, one way or another, it was knocked out of action?

MANN: Well, here again, there are differing accounts. What the Ukrainians say is that this takes out of action roughly 1 in 5 cruise missiles that the Russians had available from Black Sea vessels. If that's accurate, that's some percentage of their strike force that's reduced. But there is, Steve, also a symbolic role here. You'll remember that there was this moment early in this fight when the Moskva, the ship, confronted people on an island and demand that they surrender. The people on the island told them in polite terms, to go to hell, and that's become kind of a rallying cry. So for this vessel to be damaged - again, whether it's from a Ukrainian missile or because of some kind of operator error aboard the vessel - this is a symbolic moment for the Ukrainian side, a morale-building moment. And again, in a fight where the Russians have had debacle after debacle in terms of, you know, public perception, not a good moment. So some impact, perhaps, on the military side. But, also on the public relations side in this war, a significant moment.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I just want to underline that even if the Russian version of this is true, that's a matter of incompetence. That's a matter for which somebody would be probably prosecuted. I mean, fires break out, but you're supposed to contain them, and you're also supposed to keep your ammunition safe. A warship that's not been hit by enemy fire blowing up like this...

MANN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Is in no case a good thing. So how does this fit into the broader situation on the ground where you are in Ukraine?

MANN: You know, the Russians, as we know, have been regrouping. There have been moments of incompetence throughout for the Russians. So, again, you're right - this fits into that very ugly narrative for them. But they are pushing forward again. We've heard of Russian advances around Mariupol, also attacks on Kharkiv. And so the fighting continues. The village where I am right now, people are tense. There are checkpoints here. So, you know, this war is pressing forward despite symbolic moments like this for Ukraine.

INSKEEP: People keep waiting for a heavier Russian advance from the east heading west, correct?

MANN: That's absolutely correct. And there has been continued fighting, but so far, we haven't seen that big push yet.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

MANN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is outside Odesa, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.