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It took the Russian military more than a week to acknowledge that one service member died and more than two dozen others were missing after the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, sank, reportedly the result of Ukrainian missile strikes.

The acknowledgment happened after families started searching desperately for their sons who, they said, served on the ship and did not come home, and relatives began posing sharp questions about Russia’s initial statement that the entire crew was evacuated.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday in a terse announcement that one sailor died and 27 were missing after a fire damaged the Moskva last week, while 396 others were evacuated. The ministry did not offer any explanation for its earlier claims that the full crew managed to escape the vessel before it sank.

The loss of the Moskva,  which was one of three missile cruisers of its kind in Russia’s fleet, was shrouded in mystery from the moment it was first reported early on April 14. Ukraine said it hit the ship with missiles. The Russian defence ministry would not acknowledge an attack, saying only that a fire broke out on the vessel after ammunition detonated, causing serious damage.

Moscow even insisted that the ship remained afloat and was being towed to a port, only to admit hours later that it sank after all – in a storm. No images of the ship, or of the supposed rescue operation, were made available.

A sailor looks at the Moskva when it was moored in Sevastopol
A sailor looks at the Moskva moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in 2013. The Soviet-era vessel, which sank earlier this month, was the pride of the Black Sea Fleet [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Only several days later, the Russian military released a short and 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.

‘Blatant and cynical lie’

Soon came the questions. An emotional social media post by Dmitry Shkrebets alleging that his son, a conscript who served as a cook on the 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 went down.

“My son, a conscript, as the very commanders of the Moskva cruiser told me, is not listed among the wounded and the dead and is added to the list of those missing … Guys, missing in the open sea?!”

Similar posts quickly followed from other parts of Russia. The Associated Press news agency found social media posts looking for at least 13 other young men who reportedly served on the Moskva whose families could not find them.

One woman spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, as 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 her in early February that the ship was about to depart for drills. She lost touch with him for several weeks after that.

The news about Russia invading 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 ship, but did not say where it was.

She did not start looking for him until a day after she learned about trouble on board the Moskva because official statements from the defence ministry said the crew was evacuated. But no one called or messaged her about her son’s whereabouts, and she started to get agitated.

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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 bleak news – that her son was listed as missing and that there was little chance he survived in the cold water.

“I said ‘But you said you rescued everyone,’ and he said ‘I only have the lists’. I screamed ‘What are you doing?!’” she told the AP. “I got hysterical, right at the bus stop [where I was standing], I felt like the ground was giving way under my feet. I started shaking.”

The Kremlin statements about the ship’s loss and the crew’s fate follow a historical pattern in which Russia has often met bad news with silence, denials or undercounts about casualties. Previous examples include the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000 and the 1994-1996 Chechen war.

Political blow

The families’ accounts could not be independently verified, but they went largely uncontested by Russian authorities.

Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment and redirected the question to the defence ministry when asked by the AP about families challenging the official statements about sailors being evacuated during one of his daily conference calls with reporters.

The defence ministry did not comment on the outcry either – until Friday, when it finally revealed that 27 crew members were missing and one was confirmed dead. The ministry still did not acknowledge an attack on the ship, however.

Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov meets crew members of the Moskva following its sinking.
The head of the Russian navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, meets crew members from the sunken Moskva in Sevastopol, Crimea, in this still image taken from a video [Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says the sinking of the Moskva is a major political blow for President Vladimir Putin, not so much because of the outcry from families, but because it hurts Putin’s image of military might.

“This trait, might, is under attack now because we’re now talking about the devastation of the fleet,” Gallyamov said. But the families’ woes underscores “that one shouldn’t trust the Russian authorities”.

In the meantime, some families with missing sons plan to continue seeking the truth.

“Now we will turn to figuring out for how long one can ‘go missing’ in the open sea,” Shkrebets posted Friday.

Source: Al Jazeera

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