One of the biggest mysteries of the war, the dead or alive status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander has tipped in Ukraine’s favour.
Admiral Viktor Sokolov was said by Kyiv’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) to have been killed in a missile strike on the fleet’s HQ in Crimea.
However, in one of several videos of Sokolov released on Russian media channels after the devastating hit on September 22 last year, he was shown apparently attending a meeting with Moscow’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu and other army chiefs via a video link.
The naval officer was resting his head on a pillow during the conference with Vladimir Putin’s top brass and efforts by Western media organisations to verify his attendance proved fruitless.
The undated footage prompted Ukraine to cite ‘available sources’ for its earlier claim to have killed Sokolov along with 33 other officers in the strike on the elegant building in Sevastopol.
The slight change in tone followed a more definitive claim by the SOF that the commander was killed in the operation, with 105 other Russian personnel injured. Ukrainian defence minister Rustem Umerov told CNN at the time that if Sokolov was dead it was ‘good news for everybody’ but did not give any confirmation.
Six months on, the likelihood that Kyiv was correct after all has been given credence by British military historian and broadcaster David Saul in the Battleground Ukraine podcast.
Saul said: ‘The question is were those videos taken before the event? Almost certainly, in every case, and there were three or four put out, they were.
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‘So pretty simple really to prove he is still alive after the event.
‘And yet there hasn’t been a single sighting of him, it’s all very mysterious, but it’s also pretty revealing. Russia tends not to admit anything that would give Ukraine propaganda value.
‘But if he really had survived why haven’t we seen him since? It seems to me that he probably was indeed killed in that initial strike.’
In one of Kyiv’s most successful strikes of the war to date, at least two cruise missiles slammed into the fleet’s base in the port city.
Ukraine is thought to have launched several Storm Shadow or SCALP missiles, a type supplied by the UK and France respectively, at the base.
The video showing Sokolov at the conference call with other Russian top brass, where he did not speak, was released four days after his apparent death in the Ukrainians’ Operation Crab Trap.
The SOF had earlier called the strike, which involved its elite operators, a ‘timely strike’ during a meeting of ‘senior staff’.
The exact details were classified, according to the update on X.
Following the emergence of the conference video, the special forces posted on Telegram: ‘As is known, 34 officers were killed as a result of a missile attack on the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation.
‘Available sources claim that among the dead was the commander of the Russian Army.
‘Many still have not been identified due to the disparity of body fragments.
‘Since the Russians were urgently forced to publish an answer with an apparently alive Sokolov, our units are clarifying the information.’
In two other videos released on Russian media in the week following the strike, the admiral was shown presenting awards to an army football team and referring to an award given to members of the fleet’s 810th infantry brigade respectively.
He said in the later clip, shared by the military’s media outlet on Telegram, that the fleet was ‘fulfilling the tasks set by the command confidently and successfully’.
Whatever the truth, Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to conduct highly effective precision strikes on Moscow’s forces and infrastructure inside occupied Crimea, which was illegally annexed by the Kremlin’s forces in 2014.
The attacks have forced the fleet to remove most of its ships from the peninsular, which had been its main base in the region, in favour of safer bays in southern Russia.
Kyiv has since been able to resume grain exports in the Black Sea corridor, an achievement cited by military commentators who argue that the war should not be viewed as a stalemate.
Ukrainian operations in the region also include the liberation of Snake Island and another missile strike on September 13 on the main Russian shipyard in Sevastopol, which severely damaged the Rostov-on-Don submarine and Minsk landing ship.
To date, the Kremlin has made no official comment on whether Sokolov is dead or alive.
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