Did Ukraine really kill a Russian admiral? Questions emerge.
By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Andrew E. Kramer, Valeriya Safronova and Eric Nagourney
The killing of an enemy admiral in a missile strike would be a coup for any military, but the celebration in Ukraine over the death of Russia’s Black Sea fleet commander may turn out to be short-lived.
A day after announcing that the admiral was among 34 officers killed in a strike deep behind enemy lines, Ukrainian officials acknowledged Tuesday that there might be some uncertainty.
The Ukrainian military’s statement that it was now “clarifying” whether the admiral, Viktor Sokolov, had in fact been killed in an audacious strike last week in Russian-held Crimea came after Russia released a video Tuesday purporting to show the admiral attending a meeting earlier in the day.
Given Russia’s long history of refusing to acknowledge military setbacks, and the challenges of authenticating its video, it remained uncertain Tuesday whether Sokolov was among those killed in the Ukrainian attack on the headquarters of Moscow’s fleet in Sevastopol.
Russian officials have not commented directly on the status of the officers and have not reported any deaths as a result of the attack.
In the video clip, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu can be seen discussing a drill that he said Russia’s Pacific Fleet had completed a day earlier. An officer who appears to be Sokolov is seen on a video screen, seemingly from another location, but does not speak.
The video has been edited to show the fleet commander’s presence multiple times at the meeting, possibly to offer evidence that he was still alive. The date Sept. 26 is visible on the clip, and it matches the date in the video’s metadata.
For their part, the Ukrainians, even as they acknowledged uncertainty, maintained that Sokolov was among the casualties in the strike Friday.
“According to available sources, the commander of the Black Sea Fleet is among the dead,” the Ukrainian military’s statement said. “Many have not yet been identified due to the fragmentation of body parts.”
It was not known what Ukraine was basing its detailed claims on — both those Tuesday and those in the days after the strike on Sevastopol.
In announcing the death of the fleet commander and 33 other officers Monday, Ukraine said 105 others had been wounded, including two generals it said had sustained serious injuries. It even claimed to know that the missile had hit as Russian commanders were meeting, in what seemed to be an implicit nod to Ukrainian intelligence gathering.
If Ukrainian officials turn out to be wrong, it may not be the first time they have prematurely announced the death of a top-level Russian adversary. Early in the war, Ukraine dealt an embarrassing blow to Russia when it sank its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva. The captain of the vessel was killed in the attack, Ukraine claimed, but then, too, video emerged that showed him seemingly alive and well.
Regardless of whether the new claims bear out, it was beyond dispute Tuesday that Ukraine had managed to pull off a major strike in the heart of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014, before the full-scale invasion began last year. The Russian fleet headquarters was badly damaged in the attack.
Ukraine has been targeting Crimea in an effort to diminish its effectiveness as a supply hub for Russian forces in southern Ukraine who are trying to repel a counteroffensive. Early Tuesday, Russian drones targeted southern Ukraine, hitting port infrastructure, warehouses and dozens of trucks near the Black Sea. It was the second consecutive day of attacks on ports in the Odesa region.
Shortly before the Russian video said to show Sokolov was released Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that responding to Ukraine’s claims about the admiral’s death was “exclusively the prerogative” of the Ministry of Defense and that the Kremlin had “nothing to say here.”
In the war in Ukraine, misinformation is rife, and outright disinformation is a weapon like any other, relied on often by both sides.
The death of Sokolov would be one of the biggest blows to the Russian navy since Ukrainian forces sank the Moskva, a missile cruiser.
At first, Russia denied Ukraine’s assertions, claiming that a fire aboard the ship had forced its return to port. Only eventually did it acknowledge that the ship was lost. The Russian Defense Ministry said the Moskva had “lost its stability due to damage to the hull from the detonation of ammunition” from a fire.
“In stormy sea conditions, the ship sank,” the ministry said.
If the death of Sokolov ends up being confirmed, he would join a long roster of senior Russian military officials killed since Moscow sent its forces across the border into Ukraine in what many predicted would be an easy victory. At least a dozen Russian generals have been reported killed on the front lines.