Putin’s Black Sea fleet commander ‘killed in navy attack’ as Ukraine breakthrough triggers ‘panic’

Vladimir Putin’s commander of his Black Sea Fleet has been killed in a missile strike in annexed Crimea, claims Ukraine - as ‘panic’ grips Russian military over battlefield advances on the southern frontline.

Admiral Viktor Sokolov was among 34 officers who died when British-made Storm Shadow missiles hit the Russian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol during the devastating attack by Kyiv on Friday.

The loss of Sokolov - said to have been handpicked by Putin for the job last year - was announced by the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces in a social media update on Monday.

Moscow has not yet responded to the claim, which came as the Ukraine counteroffensive in the southern frontline in Zaporizhzhia triggered “panic” for a Russian source quoted by a US-based war monitoring think-tank.

However, on Sunday night, Russia replied with a heavy round of airstrikes on the Black Sea port of Odesa in a likely attempt to stop its export of grain and other commodities including steel. Two people were killed in the bombing, according to local officials.

The series of events started on Friday when Ukraine launched the attack on Russia’s Navy headquarters to coincide with a naval commanders’ meeting at the base. Pictures and video from the scene showed smoke coming from a large building at the hub.

The Russian defence ministry initially said that the strike had killed one service member, but later issued a statement that he was missing. Then, on Monday, Ukrainian Special Operations Forces said Sokolov was among the 34 killed during the missile strike. They also claimed that 105 other occupiers were injured.

Russia appointed Sokolov its new commander for its Crimea-based Black Sea fleet in August 2022, according to a state media outlet at the time. He had been serving as the Naval Academy chief since 2020.

The apparent death of the commander comes as fierce fighting continues on the southern front line - known as the Surovikin line - which Ukrainian forces reportedly broke through for the first time with armoured vehicles last week.

A satellite image shows smoke billowing from a Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike on Friday (via REUTERS)
A satellite image shows smoke billowing from a Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike on Friday (via REUTERS)

According to a report published by the Institute for the Study of War, the tanks managed to break the 81-mile line heavily fortified with defensive weapons, including tank traps, minefields and huge concrete blocks designed to stop armoured vehicles.

And on Monday, the Ukrainian General Staff reported that its forces captured new unspecified locations near Verbove with a source affiliated to Putin’s elite military unit VDV reportedly saying Ukrainian forces occupied half of the settlement.

“For how long can [ Minister of Defence of Russia Sergei] Shoigu’s MoD hide the breakthrough in Verbove?” the source said, accusing the Russian ministry of defence of trying to conceal Ukraine’s tactical progress in Verbove, according to think-tank the Institute for the Study of War

Verbove is a few miles east of Robotyne, that was retaken by Ukraine earlier this month. Its capture would be key in the advancement by Ukrainian troops toward the Sea of Azov, which if reached could effectively cut Russian forces in half.

Fire rips through Odesa hotel after Russian missile strike (State Emergency Service Ukraine/Telegram)
Fire rips through Odesa hotel after Russian missile strike (State Emergency Service Ukraine/Telegram)

However, Russia hit back on Sunday night with a large-scale attack on the port of Odesa with two people working in a warehouse in the city killed, according to the regional head Oleh Kiper. Fire also ripped through the empty Hotel Odesa after the drone and missile attack from Moscow.

The events came as there was a bizarre situation in the Canadian House of Commons, where there was a standing ovation to a Ukrainian veteran who had served in a Nazi SS unit during the Second World War.

Yaroslav Hunka, 98, was sitting in the gallery when he was described as a “Ukrainian hero” and a “Canadian hero” to applause from prime minister Justin Trudeau and president Volodymyr Zelensky.

It led to an apology from house speaker Anthony Rota, after it emerged that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division, a voluntary unit made up mostly of ethnic Ukrainians under Nazi command.