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Day 50 of war: Major Russian Black Sea warship is damaged as an oil ban looms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A major Russian warship in the Black Sea has sunk, according to a state-owned Russian news agency, the result of what Ukraine says is a pair of missiles it launched from the region around Odesa. This comes 50 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, and Ukraine is now bracing for a new offensive expected in the east. But even as the Russians are regrouping for that offensive, the Ukrainians are celebrating what they say is a key tactical and symbolic victory. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Odesa. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: OK. So what do we know about what happened to this ship?

MAK: Well, so what everyone agrees on is that there was some sort of explosion and a fire. The Russians claimed that the ship, the Moskva, named after Moscow, had some kind of accidental fire on board that reached its munitions, resulting in an explosion. The Ukrainians say they launched a pair of Neptune anti-ship missiles that caused substantial damage. I spoke this evening to Eugene (ph), the spokesperson for the military governor of Odesa. His combat brigade has a policy of not providing last names for security purposes.

EUGENE: They've been fired from this region, let's say. I probably told previously that we have some assets to destroy Russian navy, and this was one of them, let's say.

MAK: The vessel with some 500 crew members had been partially evacuated. Now, Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday evening Ukraine time that the ship has sunk. And that's according to a Russian state-owned news agency. A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday afternoon that the incident caused what - happened some 60 nautical miles from Odesa, where I am right now. However, that American official did not weigh in on what caused this fire on the ship.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, Tim, how big a deal is it that this particular warship has reportedly been destroyed?

MAK: Well, this development has huge symbolic meaning for the Ukrainians. You know, I've been all over Ukraine since this invasion began. And one of the most famous stories about this war is what happened on Snake Island in the early days after the invasion. You'll remember when a Russian naval vessel demanded these Ukrainian border guards to surrender, and they responded - I'm trying to put it in a polite way - essentially using profanity to tell the Russian warship what they should do to themselves.

CHANG: Right.

MAK: Now, this act of defiance has essentially become lore in Ukraine. And Ukrainian officials say that the Moskva was that warship, so striking it, substantially damaging it, even reportedly now having sunk it, that brings this story full circle. Eugene, that military spokesperson, talks about that symbolic resonance and also how this development affects the situation on the battlefield.

EUGENE: It carried 16 ballistic rockets. So their offensive abilities now got very weak.

MAK: So what has happened to the Moskva seems to have shifted Russia's naval posture. A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday that four or five Russian ships have begun heading south, away from the Ukrainian coast, after the incident.

CHANG: Well, speaking of the U.S., there has been talk of possibly sending someone from the Biden administration to Ukraine. Do you know anything else about that?

MAK: Well, the U.S. is mulling that over right now. The New York Times has reported that U.S. lawmakers Senator Steve Daines and Congresswoman Victoria Spartz were in Kyiv today. President Biden said before getting on Air Force One this afternoon that they're, quote, "making that decision now about whether and who to send."

CHANG: That is NPR's Tim Mak in Odesa, Ukraine. Thank you, Tim.

MAK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.