Two very different competing narratives have emerged since last week’s devastating Ukrainian strike on the HQ of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, with Kyiv’s recent claims being met with radio silence from the Kremlin so far.
What’s the official death toll?
Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SSO) made the announcement in a Telegram post, saying Admiral Viktor Sokolov had died and that “the headquarters building cannot be restored.”
What has Russia said?
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Russian ministry of defense said one serviceman had been killed but it swiftly updated this assessment to say they were only “missing.”
There has been only silence since so officially at least, the Kremlin’s damage assessment is still one missing person.
How accurate is this?
It’s highly unlikely that only one person is missing after the attack – at least two missiles struck the building and videos and satellite images of the strike show they hit the building square on.
New satellite imagery of Crimea shows smoke rising from Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol.— Brady Africk (@bradyafr) September 22, 2023
Recent videos from the ground showed multiple Ukrainian-operated Storm Shadow / SCALP cruise missiles hitting the site. pic.twitter.com/K57NHvAHha
Despite the extensive damage, Air Force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat, speaking on Ukrainian television last week, said he had hoped the effects would be more dramatic.
“I wanted a bigger hole to be honest,” he said.
Then there’s the other Ukrainian strike that happened a few days earlier. Kyiv claimed it had struck a secret back up HQ of the Black Sea Fleet which was being used as a more secure location for the Kremlin top brass.
Aftermath of the Ukrainian strike at the Black Sea fleet command post near Sevastopol. Comparison of the @planet satellite imagery captured on Aug. 22 and Sep. 21. Russia claimed that all the rockets were intercepted, and the smoke seen on the video was caused by a burning grass. pic.twitter.com/p7jTlFv8U6— Mark Krutov (@kromark) September 21, 2023
A source in the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) told Kyiv Post, several Kremlin commanders were at the location when it was hit.
“The strike was carried out after the SBU verified the data that the commanders of the enemy fleet are indeed in the military unit,” they said.
If Ukraine’s claims are confirmed, with this HQ destroyed it appears the Black Sea Fleet’s command that survived were effectively herded back into the main HQ building for the main strike a few days later.
And let’s not forget that these strikes are only the latest in a series of devastating Ukrainian attacks in recent weeks.
When announcing the death of Sokolov on Monday, Ukraine also gave extra details of the attack earlier this month that damaged the Rostov-on-Don submarine and the Minsk large amphibious landing ship.
Writing of the earlier attack, the SSO said that the Minsk large landing ship was scheduled to go on combat duty the following day, and personnel were on the ship.
“Irreversible losses amounted to 62 occupiers... Another 105 occupiers were injured,” the post said.
What else do we know about the true death toll?
It must be stressed that there has been no independent verification of Kyiv’s claims, so they are all we have to go on at the time of writing. But western analysts point out one factor that currently lends weight to them.
In its daily assessment on Monday, the ISW wrote: “ISW has yet to observe confirmation that these Ukrainian strikes killed Sokolov or any other high-ranking Russian commanders, although the Russian command would be able to easily disprove Ukrainian reporting if these reports are false.”
It added: “Sokolov's and other Russian officers’ reported deaths would create significant disruptions in command and control in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”
While there’s been very little reaction from the Kremlin about the strikes, it’s a different story on a regional level.
On Monday, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol held a meeting to figure out how to better protect the city from Ukrainian strikes.
According to Russian news agencies, he said: “We understand that we have moved into a new situation that requires a systemic response.
“Earlier, we and our military faced attacks from unmanned vehicles... Now everything has changed, and we must be prepared for this kind of threat.”
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