Russia shakes up Black Sea fleet command after series of blows in Crimea

Russian troops patrol the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea on July 31, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Russia's Black Sea fleet based in annexed Crimea has installed a new commander, the state-run RIA news agency said on Wednesday (Aug 17), after Russian military bases on the peninsula were rocked by explosions in the past nine days.

If confirmed, the removal of the previous commander Igor Osipov would mark the most prominent sacking of a military official in the nearly six months since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in which it has suffered heavy losses in men and equipment.

RIA cited sources as saying that the new chief, Mr Viktor Sokolov, was introduced to members of the fleet's military council in the port of Sevastopol.

One source said it was "normal" that the appointment was not publicly announced at a time when Russia was conducting what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine.

The Black Sea fleet, which has a revered history in Russia, has suffered several highly public humiliations in the course of the war that President Vladimir Putin launched on Feb 24.

In April, Ukraine struck its lead warship, the Moskva, with Neptune missiles, causing it to catch fire and sink. Last week, its Saki airbase in south-west Crimea, near the fleet's headquarters at Sevastopol, was devastated by a series of explosions that destroyed eight warplanes, according to satellite imagery.

Then on Tuesday (Aug 16), blasts rocked an ammunition depot at a military base in the north of the peninsula. Russia called that an act of sabotage, and Ukraine hinted it was responsible.

On Wednesday, Russia's FSB security service said it detained six members of what it called an Islamist terrorist cell in Crimea, though it did not say if they were suspected of involvement in the explosions.

The Black Sea fleet is much larger than Ukraine's navy and is a source of national pride dating back to its foundation under Empress Catherine the Great in 1783.

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Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and has extensively fortified since then, provides the main supply route for Russian invasion forces occupying southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is planning a counter-offensive in coming weeks.

The fleet has blockaded Ukraine's ports since the start of the war in February, trapping vital grain exports, which are only now starting to move again under an agreement brokered by Turkey and the United Nations.

The fact that Ukraine has apparently been able to mount destructive attacks on what Moscow saw as a secure rear stronghold has served as a morale-boosting coup for Kyiv.

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The previous Russian commander, Mr Osipov, 49, had been in charge since May 2019, according to his official biography on the Defence Ministry website.

His replacement, Mr Sokolov, 60, had extensive experience commanding minesweeping vessels and units in the 1980s and 1990s, then rose through a series of posts in the Pacific and Northern fleets, serving as deputy commander in the latter. Since 2020, he has headed a prestigious military academy.

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