Russian media just put out more supposed evidence that an admiral Ukraine claims to have killed is actually alive – but experts still don’t know what to believe.
On Monday, Ukraine alleged that Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, died along with 33 other officers following a missile strike on Moscow’s naval headquarters in Crimea last Friday.
If true, it would deal a significant blow to the Russian Navy, on par only with Ukraine’s successful sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet last year.
But, on Tuesday, Russia’s defence ministry released a video on Telegram – supposedly filmed the day before – which apparently showed the admiral remotely attending a large military conference with the defence minister.
While the BBC used facial recognition software to confirm the man in the clip was indeed Sokolov, the broadcasters were not able to pinpoint when it was filmed.
The clip prompted Ukraine’s military to clarify their statement, saying: “According to available sources, the commander of the Black Sea Fleet is among the dead. Many have not yet been identified due to the fragmentation of body parts.”
However, it’s also not clear how Kyiv would be able to look at the area it struck because it took place in Russian occupied land.
The following day, the Russian state media started to issue more unverified videos of the admiral – and this time, he could be heard speaking to journalists.
An undated clip posted on the Russian state-run TV network, Zvezda, seemed to show Sokolov saying the Black Sea Fleet has been “fulfilling goals that are set by command”.
Another video posted by a local news outlet showed Sokolov responding to a question about the impacts about a Ukrainian strike, saying: “What happened to us? Nothing happened to us. Life goes on.”
This turn of events – the latest in the ongoing information war between the two countries – have left experts quite bewildered.
The US think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its daily update that it is “unprepared at this time to make an assessment about the authenticity of the footage or the date of the filming”.
It added: “The Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defence have been notably silent on the matter and have not directly confirmed that Sokolov is alive.”
Russia also has a reputation for obscuring narratives which might cause embarrassment for the Kremlin.
While Sokolov’s fate is still unknown, clips on social media suggest the attack last Friday did take place in one form or another.
Russia also claimed at the time that it had shot down five incoming missiles and only one serviceman had died in the incident, though it admitted its headquarters were damaged.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said at a briefing that the West were to blame for the strike.
She said: “There is no doubt that the attack had been planned in advance using Western intelligence means, NATO satellite assets and reconnaissance planes and was implemented upon the advice of American and British security agencies and in close co-ordination with them.”
The Black Sea has become the new focal point of the war, with Kyiv attacking Russian warships to stop any advances towards the Ukrainian mainland, deter cruise missiles and disrupt Moscow’s blockade on Ukraine’s ports.
Ukraine is also determined to liberate Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.