At the outset of the war, defiant Ukrainian officials said the Russian invasion’s leaders would be hunted down ruthlessly.
At the time, for many military experts, it sounded like the hollow threats of a little country about to be overrun by Kremlin might. That’s not the case anymore.
The most spectacular and possibly successful Ukrainian decapitation attack, thus far in a campaign that appears to be in progress for just a couple of weeks, hit the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol in the Russia-occupied Crimea peninsula, on Sept. 22.
Three British/French Storm Shadow missiles – weapons designed to plow deep into a ship or ground structure before detonating – hit the building dead center shortly after 1 p.m., apparently as a top-level meeting of Russian army and naval officers was in progress.
The strike, called operation “Crab Trap” by Ukraine’s special operations branch, according to Ukrainian claims, had killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the Russian Black Sea Fleet commander, and wounded Colonel General Aleksandr Romanchuk, deputy commander of all Russian forces operating in south Ukraine.
Also reported dead was Lieutenant General Oleg Tsekov, Sokolov’s second-in-command, and at least 30 other senior Russian officers, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service Kyrylo Budanov said in public statements.
Local media images confirmed the fleet headquarters suffered devastating damage and said that military ambulances transported at least 100 individuals, some of them corpses, from the scene.
That said, Russian state-controlled media on Tuesday, Sept. 26 published a video of Sokolov alive and participating in a meeting via a Zoom-style platform.
A statement from Ukraine’s Special Operations Command (SSO) reiterated that 34 Russian officers primarily serving in the Russian navy died in the strike, and that “reliable sources” confirm Sokolov’s death.
The SSO claimed full confirmation of Sokolov’s death was complicated, for Russian investigators, by the degree of damage to victims’ corpses. But Sokolov aside, Kyiv has been very effective in its efforts to kill Russian officers.
Since the war began, Ukraine claims, the AFU has killed eleven Russian generals and one admiral. According to Russian statements, the Russian military has lost six general officers since the Kremlin sent its army into Ukraine.
Here are some of Ukraine’s recent attacks.
Khalino air base
A Ukrainian strategy of tailoring the weapon to the target was visible on Sept. 24 – two days after the Black Sea Fleet Headquarters strike – when a single Ukrainian long-range drone appeared in the sky above Khalino Military Airfield in Russia’s western Kursk Region and, according to both Russian and Ukrainian reports, dove into an administrative building used by Russia’s 14th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment.
Locals reported hearing multiple explosions such as anti-aircraft fire followed by a heavy blast from the direction of the airfield. Russian military information platforms confirmed a strike had caused personnel losses at the base – among them officers.
According to Ukrainian news and official sources, the drone blew up in the middle of a meeting attended by the 14th Guards’ commander, vice commander, an undetermined number of combat pilots, representatives from the Russian secret police the FSB, and senior airfield logistics and ground support officers.
Most of those reports said Ukrainian strike planners chose to ignore the theoretically attractive Su-30A fighter jets dispersed across the airfield, in favor of an attack likely to take out the unit’s senior leaders and pilots needing years of training to be replaced.
An apparent follow-up drone strike hit the Kursk FSB office premises, with unreported results.
Saky air base
On Sept. 21, a wave of Ukrainian anti-ship Neptune missiles converted into ground attack weapons aimed at Saky military airfield in Crimea.
That strike reportedly burned or damaged Su-24 bombers and Su-30 fighters – at least 12 aircraft.
According to Ukrainian news reports, another potential – but unconfirmed –target of the Saky strike was Russian service members attending training to become pilots for the Mojaher drone, a remote-controlled Iranian aircraft used by the Russian military to control artillery fires.
Melitopol hidden military base
The AFU on Sept. 19 used HIMARS precision-guided rockets to hit a motor factory in the south Ukrainian city of Melitopol. According to an SBU statement, the attack killed the commander of Russia’s 58th Army and killed and wounded “several dozen” staff.
Images from the scene showed the top floor of the building totally blown out and burning. Russian military information platforms confirmed that it was a HIMARS strike.
According to unconfirmed reports, the commander of the 58th was Lieutenant General Denis Lyamin. The Ukrainian government-linked LIGA website said “about ten” of Lyamin’s staff had been killed in the attack. Other strikes badly damaged Russian equipment and ammunition dumps elsewhere in the city, Melitopol’s mayor-in-exile, Ivan Federiv, told the Inter TV channel.
Chkalovsky air base
On Sept. 18, just 30 kilometers northeast of Moscow, two Russian planes and a helicopter were “significantly damaged” in an attack carried out by “unknown saboteurs” at Chkalovsky Air Base, one of the Kremlin’s main military airfields, the Directorate of Military intelligence of Ukraine (HUR) said in a Telegram post.
The airfield is home to “doomsday planes,” which are also referred to as the “Flying Kremlin,” aircraft designed to protect Russian President Vladimir Putin in the event of a nuclear conflict.
“Unknown saboteurs… planted explosives and detonated AN-148 and IL-20 aircraft (both belong to the 354th special purpose aviation regiment) at the airfield, which is carefully guarded, as well as the MI-28N [Havoc] helicopter, which was actively involved in shooting down attack drones over Moscow region,” the HUR said.
Temporary command post in Kherson
Kyiv’s campaign to kill or wound members of Moscow’s shrinking pool of combat leaders sent a guided weapon into the midst of a Monday, Sept. 18 morning command group meeting of the top officers in Russia’s 24th Motor Rifle Regiment, 70th Motor Rifle Division, in the Kherson sector.
Images published by Ukraine’s national intelligence agency the SBU and later geolocated by the Ukrainian Skhemy research group to the vicinity of the village Radensk, Kherson region, southern front, showed what appeared to be a guided munition slamming through the roof of a building in terrain typical for south Ukraine and devastating the interior. Some reports said officers from the 28th Motor Rifle Regiment and 31st Airborne Regiment were also present.
Українські військові вразили тимчасовий пункт управління окупантів у Херсонській області з #HIMARS, серед російських офіцерів є загиблі та постраждаліhttps://t.co/QYSlNRwZKk pic.twitter.com/Bj6txPSZ12— РБК-Україна (@rbc_ukraine) September 26, 2023
The SBU statement said eight Russian officers were “liquidated” in the strike and another seven injured – a serious and potentially crippling loss for the command and control of a motor rifle regiment containing in its headquarters some 20 officers when at full strength.
Ukrainian media widely confirmed 24th Regiment’s leadership had been hit and suffered substantial losses. Kyiv Post could not confirm details of the strike hitting 24th Regiment’s leaders independently, and some early reports said the Radensk strike hit the headquarters of Russia’s 7th Guards Airborne Assault Division, killing 15 to 20 officers.
Svitlodarsk military base
Russian command and control in the vicinity of Svitlodarsk, 20 kilometers south of Bakhmut, was targeted on the night of Sept. 16 and into Sept.17, with JDAMs (guided aerial bombs) reported. These were followed by precision-guided missiles and artillery hitting a Russian paratrooper regimental headquarters and command nodes.
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