The Russian military took more than a week to acknowledge that one serviceman was killed and two dozen others were missing after one of its flagship cruisers sank in the Black Sea, allegedly as a result of a Ukrainian missile attack.
The acknowledgment came after families began desperately searching for their children who they said served on the ship and did not return home, with relatives raising sharp questions about Russia’s initial statement that the entire crew was evacuated. .
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a terse announcement Friday that one crew member died and 27 were missing after a fire damaged the flagship Moskva cruiser last week, while 396 others were evacuated. The ministry offered no explanation for its earlier claims that the entire crew left the ship before it sank.
The loss of the Moskva, one of three such missile cruisers in Russia’s fleet, has been shrouded in mystery from the time it was first reported on April 14. Ukraine said it hit the ship with missiles. The Russian Defense Ministry did not acknowledge an attack, saying only that a fire broke out on the ship after munitions detonated, causing serious damage.
Moscow even insisted the ship remained afloat and was being towed to a port, only to admit hours later that it sank in a storm after all. No images of the ship or the alleged rescue operation were made available.
Just several days later, the Russian military released a brief and mostly silent video showing rows of sailors, purportedly from the Moskva, reporting to their command in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The images offered little clarity on how many sailors were actually evacuated to safety.
The questions soon came. An emotional social media post by Dmitry Shkrebets alleging that his son, a conscript who served as a cook in Moskva, was missing quickly went viral.
The military “said the entire crew was evacuated. It’s a lie! A blatant and cynical lie!” Shkrebets, a resident of Crimea, wrote on VK, a popular Russian social media platform, on April 17, three days after the ship sank.
“My son, a conscript, as the same commanders of the Moskva cruiser told me, is not listed among the wounded and dead and is added to the list of the missing … Guys, missing in the open sea?!”
Similar posts quickly followed from other parts of Russia. The Associated Press found social media posts searching for at least 13 other young men who allegedly served in the Moskva whose families were unable to find them.
One woman spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because she feared for her son’s safety. She said her son was a conscript and had been aboard the Moskva for several months before telling him in early February that the ship was about to leave for exercises. She lost contact with him for several weeks after that.
The news that Russia invaded Ukraine worried her, she said, and she began reading the news online and on social media every day. The last time she spoke on the phone was in mid-March. She was on the boat but she didn’t say where she was.
She didn’t start looking for him until a day after learning of trouble aboard the Moskva, because official Defense Ministry statements said the crew had been evacuated. But no one called or texted her about the whereabouts of her son, and she began to get agitated.
Calls to various military officials and hotlines got her nowhere at first, but she persisted. A call she made on the way to a grocery store brought bad news: Her son was listed as missing and there was little chance he would survive in the cold water.
“I told him ‘But you said you rescued everyone,’ and he said ‘I just have the lists.’ I yelled ‘What are you doing?'” he told the AP. “I got hysterical, right at the bus stop (where I was standing), I felt like the ground was sinking under my feet. I started shaking.”
The Kremlin’s statements about the loss of the ship and the fate of the crew follow a historical pattern in which Russia has often responded to bad news with silence, denial or underestimation of casualties. Earlier examples include the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea in 2000, and the 1994-1996 Chechen war.
The families’ accounts could not be independently verified. But they were largely unchallenged by Russian authorities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment, redirecting the question to the Defense Ministry when asked by the AP during one of its daily conference calls with reporters about families who question official statements about the sailors’ evacuation.
The Defense Ministry also did not comment on the protests, until Friday, when it finally revealed that 27 crew members were missing and one was confirmed dead. However, the ministry has not yet acknowledged an attack on the ship.
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says the sinking of the Moskva is a major political blow to President Vladimir Putin, not so much because of the families’ protests, but because it damages Putin’s image of military might.
“This trait, the power, is under attack now because we are now talking about the devastation of the fleet,” Gallyamov said. But the families’ problems underscore “that the Russian authorities should not be trusted.”
Meanwhile, some families with missing children plan to continue searching for the truth.
“Now we will dedicate ourselves to finding out how long one can ‘disappear’ in the open sea,” Shkrebets posted on Friday.