Europe Politics

Dead or alive? Mystery surrounds the fate of Russia's Black Sea Fleet commander

Key Points
  • Mystery continues to surround the fate of the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, who Ukraine claimed it had killed in a missile strike last Friday.
  • Russia's Defense Ministry published a video in which Adm. Viktor Sokolov was seen attending a video conference with Russian defense officials Tuesday.
  • It is unknown if that meeting actually took place on Tuesday or when the video was filmed.
  • A top British defense analyst questioned the authenticity of the Russian video, saying it is not conclusive evidence that Sokolov is alive.
Commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Admiral Viktor Sokolov attends a ceremony marking 240th anniversary of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea May 13, 2023.
Alexey Pavlishak | Reuters

Mystery continues to surround the fate of the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, who Ukraine claimed it had killed in a missile strike on the Russian naval headquarters in Crimea.

Russia's Defense Ministry published a video Tuesday in which Adm. Viktor Sokolov was seen attending a video conference with Russian defense officials — although it is unknown if that meeting actually took place that day or when the video was filmed. Neither Sokolov or the naval commanders speak during the video.

The plot thickened Wednesday when a television station run by the Defense Ministry published a second video purportedly showing Sokolov alive. The channel, Zvezda, posted the video on Telegram, calling it an "exclusive." Posting an excerpt from the interview and attributing the comments to Sokolov, it said:

The Black Sea Fleet is successfully carrying out the tasks the command has set to us, this includes the surface and underwater forces, the sea aviation, the coastal troops. You know these reports which are almost constantly on TV telling about the heroic deeds of our marines." The post was translated by NBC.

Again, it's unknown if the interview was filmed before or after Ukraine's strike on the headquarters.


Questions are being asked as to why Ukraine's claims over Sokolov's apparent death have not been referenced in either video, given that they offered ripe opportunities for Russia and Sokolov himself to rebuff the assertions.

A top British defense analyst questioned the authenticity of the first Russian video, saying it looks "odd" and was not conclusive evidence that Sokolov is still alive.

Commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Viktor Sokolov (left) appears on the screen at the meeting that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held with ministry officials in Moscow, Russia, on Sept. 26, 2023.
Russian Defense Ministry | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

"We've looked at the video, it's not very clear and it jumps around quite a lot. We've located the person on the video who looks most like Sokolov, and it may be him, but it's not a completely clear match," defense and security analyst Michael Clarke told Sky News on Tuesday.

"It could be Sokolov, looking at previous photographs of him. On the other hand, there's still no proof that this video is really current," he said, adding that "there's a lot of evidence that Sokolov was in the building that was hit on Friday by a couple of Storm Shadow missiles."

"So, it is possible that Sokolov lives. But I think the Russians would have to produce more convincing evidence than this if they want to be taken seriously on this particular issue."

Viktor Sokolov attends a ceremony marking the 240th anniversary of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea, on May 13, 2023.
Alexey Pavlishak | Reuters

Clarke noted that it was "odd that producing a rather vague video and saying he's here somewhere, and leaving it to news organizations like us to try to work out who it might be, is less than clear in the message they were trying to send."

Awkward for Ukraine

The emergence of the video certainly puts Ukraine in an awkward position as it appeared to directly contradict Ukraine's claims on Monday that its strikes on the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol on Friday had killed the commander and 33 other naval officers, as well as injuring more than 100 other personnel.

Ukraine did not say how it had counted the number of dead and injured and had not named any alleged victims.

After the video's emergence, Ukraine conceded that Sokolov's death had not been confirmed, saying it was still "clarifying information" around the attack, stating 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," Ukraine's special operations forces said.

"Since the Russians were urgently forced to publish an answer with an apparently alive Sokolov, our units are clarifying the information," it added.

Earlier, the Kremlin said it had no comment on Ukraine's claim that Sokolov had been killed in the attack.

Close followers of the war say the episode could reflect badly on Ukraine because it could cast doubts on other information it publishes or claims it makes in the war.

Sam Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, noted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that while many Ukrainian sources claimed that Sokolov was dead, Ukraine's military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, had been more cautious in his analysis "and focused on injuries to other key personnel."

It now looked "like Budanov's cautious approach was correct," Ramani said.

The Institute for the Study of War said in analysis Tuesday that "the situation remains unclear at this time" and that it was "unprepared at this time to make an assessment about the authenticity of the Russian MoD's footage of Sokolov or about Sokolov's status on Earth."

Why it matters

If it's proved that Sokolov is alive, it will be a disappointing blow for Ukraine as it looks to disable the capabilities of Russia's prized and historically important Black Sea Fleet in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The fleet supports Russia's invading forces, launching attacks on Ukraine, and is important for Russia in guarding the strategically and economically important Black Sea trade route.

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the fleet in recent days with its strike last Friday causing significant damage to its headquarters. U.K. defense officials noted Tuesday that "a dynamic, deep strike battle is underway in the Black Sea."

"This is likely forcing Russia into a reactive posture whilst demonstrating that Ukraine's military can undermine the Kremlin's symbolic and strategic power projection from its warm water port in occupied Sevastopol," the U.K.'s Defense Ministry said in an intelligence update on X.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet warships take part in Russia's Navy Day celebrations in the port city of Novorossiysk on July 30, 2023.
Stringer | Afp | Getty Images

It noted that attacks on the fleet in recent days "have been more damaging and more coordinated than thus far in the war" but noted that the "physical damage to the Black Sea Fleet is almost certainly severe but localised."

"The fleet almost certainly remains capable of fulfilling its core wartime missions of cruise missile strikes and local security patrols" but it said that the Russian navy's "ability to continue wider regional security patrols and enforce its de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports will be diminished."

"It also likely has a degraded ability to defend its assets in port and to conduct routine maintenance."