The Black Sea Fleet, based in Russia’s annexed Crimea, has acquired a new commander, Russia’s RIA news agency reported, citing sources, after Russian military bases on the peninsula were hit over the past nine days.
If the change is confirmed, the removal of previous commander Igor Osipov would mark the most significant sacking of a military official in the nearly six months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has suffered heavy losses in men and equipment.
The state-run RIA news agency, citing its own sources, wrote that the new commander, Viktor Sokolov, was presented to members of the fleet’s military council in the port of Sevastopol.
One source said it was “normal” that no appointment was publicly announced as Russia conducts what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Black Sea Fleet, which has a venerable history in Russia, has suffered several public humiliations during the war launched by President Vladimir Putin on February 24.
In April, Ukraine hit the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moscow, with Neptune missiles, causing it to catch fire and sink.
Last week at the Saki air base in southwestern Crimea, which is near the fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, a series of explosions took place that destroyed eight warplanes, according to satellite images.
Then on Tuesday, explosions rocked an ammunition depot at a military base in the northern part of the peninsula. Russia spoke of an act of sabotage and Ukraine hinted that it bears responsibility for this blow.
Today Russia’s FSB security service said it had arrested six members of what it called an Islamist terrorist cell in Crimea, although it did not say whether they were suspected of involvement in the blasts.
The Black Sea Fleet is much larger than Ukraine’s navy and has been a source of national pride dating back to its establishment under Empress Catherine the Great in 1783.
Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and has since been heavily fortified, provides the main supply route for Russian invasion forces that have seized southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is planning a counteroffensive in the coming weeks.
The fleet has blockaded Ukraine’s ports since the war began in February, trapping vital grain exports, which are only now beginning to resume under a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations.
The fact that Ukraine is apparently capable of launching devastating attacks on what Moscow regarded as a safe stronghold acted as a moral advantage for Kyiv.
The 49-year-old former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Osipov, has been in charge since May 2019, according to his official biography posted on the Defense Ministry’s website.
His replacement, 60-year-old Viktor Sokolov, has extensive experience commanding minesweepers and units in the 1980s and 1990s, and subsequently held senior positions in the Pacific Fleet and North Sea Fleet, where he served as deputy commander . As of 2020, he was the head of a prestigious military academy.