Russia changes head of Black Sea Fleet amid Crimea strikes

The Kremlin has reportedly ousted the head of its Black Sea Fleet after a series of apparent Ukrainian attacks on occupied Crimea, where the fleet is based.

Vice-Admiral Viktor Sokolov was made head of the fleet Wednesday, Russian state-run outlet RIA reported, citing unnamed sources. Sokolov ousts Admiral Igor Osipov, who’s commanded the fleet since 2019.

The leadership change comes as Russian momentum in Ukraine had reached a crawl, and a series of explosions in Crimea hint at the start of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Admiral Igor Osipov
The Kremlin ousted Admiral Igor Osipov, the head of its Black Sea Fleet, after a series of Ukrainian strikes in Russia-controlled territory.
Sputnik via AP

The Russian Ministry of Defense immediately denied the report according to Russian newspaper Kommersant, warning, “Do not believe the gossip, when he is appointed, then it will be officially announced.”

The Sebastopol shakeup is notable given the symbolic importance of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The Crimea-based battlegroup has been home to the Russian empire’s warm-water warships since the late 18th century.

Russia continued to operate out of Crimea even after the fall of the Soviet Union in a deal with newly independent Ukraine.

In 2014, Russian forces annexed the peninsula, declaring it part of Russia — a proclamation Kyiv and the Western powers reject.

Since the start of the invasion, the Crimea-based fleet has been the primary threat to Ukrainian port cities like Odessa. The fleet’s guided-missile cruisers have also been a key component to Russian bombardments of Ukrainian cities.

The fleet gained a black eye in April after Ukrainian anti-ship missiles sank its flagship, the Moskva.

A British Defense Ministry intelligence update this week said the fleet has been in an “extremely defensive posture” in the waters off Crimea, barely venturing beyond the coast.

The Russian fleet’s “limited effectiveness undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British said. “This means Ukraine can divert resources to press Russian ground forces elsewhere.”

Vice-Admiral Viktor Sokolov
Admiral Igor Osipov, who’s commanded the fleet since 2019, will reportedly be replaced by Vice-Admiral Viktor Sokolov.
Sputnik via AP

That assessment comes as Ukraine has said it’s gearing up for a push into the Kherson oblast — north of occupied Crimea — and after a series of unexplained explosions on the peninsula.

Last week, a series of detonations rocked a Russian airfield in the Saki district of Crimea, destroying multiple attack aircraft and leaving craters visible in satellite photos.

Russian authorities denied any airplanes were destroyed and blamed the massive explosions on an accident at an ammunition depot.

Detonation of ammunition as a result of a fire on the territory of the temporary ammunition storage site of one of the military units in the village of Mayskoye
The leadership change comes as Russia has encountered fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, including a series of explosions in Russian-controlled Crimea.
Sipa USA via AP

On Tuesday, yet more explosions were reported, this time at an ammunition dump and a separate airfield. Russian authorities called it “sabotage,” but gave no further information.

Ukrainian authorities have neither confirmed nor denied their responsibility for the attacks.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak hinted at more to come on Tuesday. 

“I certainly agree with the Russian ministry for defense, which is predicting more incidents of this kind in the next two, three months,” he told the British newspaper the Guardian.