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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In a blow to Russia, Ukraine says it killed chief of Black Sea fleet

Olha and Volodymyr Radiuk, right, mourn over the coffin of their son, Serhiy Radiuk, a member of the Ukrainian National Guard, during his funeral at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv, Sept. 25, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew E. Kramer

Ukraine’s military claimed earlier this week that it had killed the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in a strike on Crimea — a blow that, if confirmed, would be among the most damaging suffered by the Russian navy since the sinking of the fleet’s flagship last year.

Citing “new information about the losses of the enemy as a result of the special operation,” Ukraine’s special operations forces said in a statement that the strike on Friday killed 34 officers, including the fleet commander, and wounded 105 others. It did not name the naval leader, but the commander of the Black Sea Fleet is Adm. Viktor Sokolov, one of the most senior officers in Russia’s navy.

The attack came during a meeting of Russian commanders, Ukraine’s military said, and badly damaged a headquarters of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. The chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, also told Voice of America on Saturday that the strike had badly wounded two senior Russian generals — Col. Gen. Alexander Romanchuk and Lt. Gen. Oleg Tsekov. There has been no further word from either side on their condition.

There was no immediate comment from Russia’s Defense Ministry on the status of any of its commanders, and there was no independent verification of the claims.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has sharply increased the pace of strikes in Crimea, a strategically vital peninsula illegally annexed by Russia nearly a decade ago. Ukraine has used missiles and aerial and maritime drones to attack warships, a naval port, bridges and military depots.

By going after Crimea, analysts say, Ukraine is making it harder for the Kremlin to use the region as a logistics hub for the territory it seized last year in southern Ukraine, where Russia is now battling a Ukrainian counteroffensive. It is also raising the price that Russia must pay to maintain control of the peninsula and use it as the base for a fleet that regularly fires missiles into Ukraine, attacks and attempts to enforce a blockade on Ukrainian ports.

“Any target inside Crimea is essentially fair game to demonstrate to the Russians they do not have security, they do not control skies over Crimea, they are vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes, and Ukraine can get to them whenever it wants,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst of Russia’s military at CNA, a think tank based near Washington.

Russia on Monday fired a barrage of drones and missiles at the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, a hub of the grain export trade that Ukraine has tried to maintain despite Russian efforts to cripple it. Ukraine’s military said it had shot down most of the weapons, but officials said one had hit a grain warehouse, killing two people, and others had damaged a marine terminal and an abandoned high-rise hotel.

The attack on Sevastopol on Friday used a combination of missiles and exploding drones to overwhelm Russian air defenses, according to Ukraine’s military. Video footage showed the headquarters building smoking as an airborne weapon plunged into it and detonated it, sending debris flying and engulfing it in a cloud of thick smoke and debris.

The Russian news agency TASS featured an image showing part of the building caved in, and an analysis of satellite images before and after the attack also showed that the building was heavily damaged.

If Ukraine’s claims are accurate — that it knew of the high-level Russian meeting, learned the identities of those hit and was able to obtain casualty counts — the statements would indicate an intelligence coup as well as a military one.

It was not clear what weapons were used on Friday, but Ukraine has recently deployed Storm Shadow cruise missiles given by Britain and nearly identical SCALP cruise missiles supplied by France that reportedly can travel more than 300 miles, far beyond the range of other Western weapons used by Ukraine.

The strikes have exposed flaws in Russia’s system of air defenses, according to Budanov, forcing Moscow to redeploy anti-missile batteries from elsewhere on the battlefield to Crimea.

“We are depleting their air-defense missile stocks because those are not limitless,” he said. “And from the political standpoint, we’re also demonstrating the obvious inability of Russian air defense systems.”

The Ukrainian statement on Monday also asserted that an attack this month on one of the Russian fleet’s landing ships, the Minsk, had killed 62 sailors — another claim that could not be independently verified. It did not specify a date, but on Sept. 12, a Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol damaged two navy ships, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Pro-war Russian military bloggers and the Russian news outlet Baza identified them as the Minsk and an attack submarine.

Although it remains the paramount naval power in the Black Sea, the Russian fleet there has suffered multiple setbacks. In April, 2022, Ukraine sank the Moskva cruiser, the fleet’s flagship vessel, with a missile attack. In August 2023, it used naval drones to damage a Russian warship on the far side of the Black Sea.

Crimea is central to the expansive territorial vision that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has outlined, so Moscow’s inability to protect it from strikes is an embarrassment to the Kremlin, analysts said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine insists that his country will retake all of the territory annexed by Russia, including Crimea, but for years Moscow had faced no military challenge to its occupation of the peninsula. The Kremlin promoted immigration from Russia to Crimea, and the region’s balmy climate and beaches attracted Russian vacationers, as it had for generations.

At the same time, a regional administration installed by the Kremlin after it seized Crimea in 2014 cracked down on dissent. International human rights groups and Crimean activists say that scores of people, mostly from the peninsula’s Tatar ethnic group, have been arrested and detained in brutal conditions.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, its forces used Crimea as a jumping-off point to seize parts of southern Ukraine, establishing a land bridge that connects to Russian-occupied areas farther east.

In the longer term, Russia aims to ride out the Ukrainian attacks, aware that Ukrainian ground forces are still far from reaching Crimea, much less retaking it, according to Dmitry Kuznets, an independent analyst of the war who writes for Meduza, a Russian news website.

Ukrainian stocks of longer-range missiles are finite, he said, adding that, while damaging, the campaign of strikes had not yet reached a critical point for Russia.

“The goal is to disrupt Russian logistics and control in order to gain an advantage at the front,” he said. “To achieve this, strikes are carried out not only in Crimea, but also throughout the south of Ukraine. In this sense, progress has been limited so far.”

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