It took more than a week for the Russian military to acknowledge that one serviceman had died and two dozen others were missing after one of its flagship cruisers sank in the Black Sea, apparently following a a Ukrainian missile strike.
The recognition came after families began to search desperately for their sons who they said served on the ship and did not come home, and relatives are questioning the initial statement of the Russia that the entire crew was evacuated.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a terse announcement on Friday that one crew member had died and 27 were missing after a fire damaged the flagship cruiser Moskva last week, while 396 others were evacuated. The ministry has offered no explanation for its earlier claims that the entire crew left the ship before it sank.
The loss of Moskva, one of three such missile cruisers in the Russian fleet, has been shrouded in mystery from the moment it was first reported in early 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 exploded, causing severe damage.
Moscow even insisted the ship remained afloat and was being towed to a port, only to admit hours later that it had sunk after all – in a storm. No footage of the ship, or the supposed rescue operation, has been made available.
Just days later, the Russian military released a short, mostly silent video showing rows of sailors, supposedly from the Moskva, reporting to their command in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The footage offered little clarity on how many sailors were actually evacuated to safety.
Soon came the questions. A moving 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 army “said that the entire crew had been evacuated. That’s a lie! A blatant and cynical lie!” Shkrebets, a Crimean resident, wrote on VK, a popular Russian social media platform, on April 17, three days after the ship sank.
“My son, a conscript, as the very commanders of the cruiser Moskva told me, is not among the wounded and dead and is added to the list of missing … Guys, missing at sea?!”
Similar messages soon followed from other parts of Russia. The Associated Press found social media posts looking for at least 13 other young men who allegedly served on the Moskva whose families could not find them.
A 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 on board 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.
News of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine worried her, she said, and she started reading the news online and on social media every day. The last time they spoke on the phone was in mid-March. He was on the boat but did not say where he was.
She did not start looking for him until a day after learning that there were problems aboard the Moskva, as official statements from the Ministry of Defense indicated that the crew had been evacuated. But no one called or texted her to find out where her son was, and she started to get restless.
Calls to various military officials and hotlines initially did not bring it to fruition, but it persisted. A call she made on the way to a grocery store brought grim news – that her son was missing and there was little chance he would survive in the cold water.
“I said ‘But you said you saved everyone’ and he said ‘I only have the lists’. I shouted ‘What are you doing?!'” she told the AP “I went hysterical, right at the bus stop (where I was standing) I felt like the ground was giving way under my feet. I started shaking.”
Kremlin statements about the loss of the ship and the fate of the crew follow a historical pattern in which Russia has often met bad news with silence, denials or underreporting of losses. Previous examples include the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the sinking of the Kursk nuclear-powered submarine in the Barents Sea in 2000, and the Chechnya war of 1994-1996.
The families’ accounts could not be independently verified. But they went largely unchallenged by Russian authorities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment and redirected the question to the Defense Ministry when asked by the AP during one of its daily conference calls with reporters about the families. contesting official statements on the evacuation of sailors.
The Ministry of Defense also did not comment on the outcry – until Friday, when it finally revealed that 27 crew members were missing and one was confirmed dead. However, the ministry has still not acknowledged an attack on the vessel.
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says the sinking of the Moskva is a major political blow for President Vladimir Putin, not so much because of outcry from families, but because it damages Putin’s image of military might.
“That trait, potency, is under attack now because we are now talking about the devastation of the fleet,” Gallyamov said. But the families’ misfortunes underline “that the Russian authorities should not be trusted”.
In the meantime, some families whose sons have disappeared plan to continue searching for the truth.
“We will now determine how long a person can ‘disappear’ in the open sea,” Shkrebets said on Friday.