It took the Russian military more than a week to admit that one serviceman was killed and more than 20 others were missing after the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, sank, reportedly as a result of a Ukrainian missile strike.

Families began a desperate search for their sons, who they said served on the ship but did not return home, and relatives began to ask tough questions about Russia’s initial statement that all crew members had been evacuated.

A sailor was killed, 27 were missing and 396 others were evacuated following a fire in Moscow last week, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a brief announcement on Friday. The ministry offered no explanation for its earlier claim that the entire crew managed to escape the ship before it sank.

The loss of the Moscow, one of three missile cruisers of its kind in the Russian fleet, has been shrouded in mystery from the moment it was first reported earlier on April 14. Ukraine said it hit the ship with a missile. The Russian Defense Ministry did not acknowledge the attack, saying only that a fire broke out on the ship after the ammunition detonated, causing serious damage.

Moscow even insisted the ship was still afloat and towed to a port, only to admit hours later that it sank in a storm after all. No images of the boat or the alleged rescue operation were provided.

A sailor looks at the Moskva moored in the port of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Ukraine, in 2013.The Soviet-era ship that sank earlier this month is the pride of the Black Sea Fleet [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Just days later, the Russian military released a brief and almost silent video showing rows of sailors allegedly from Moscow reporting to their command in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The video said little about how many sailors were actually evacuated to safety.

“Blatant and cynical lies”

Soon, the problem came. An emotional social media post by Dmitry Shkrebets claiming that his son, a conscript working as a chef in Moscow, went missing quickly went viral.

The military “said the entire crew was evacuated. This is a lie! A blatantly cynical lie!” Crimea resident Shkrebets on April 17, three days after the ship sank, on popular Russian social media platform VK wrote on.

“My son, a conscript, as the commander of the Moscow cruiser told me, was not listed on the list of wounded and dead, but on the list of missing people…Missing on the high seas, guys?!”

Similar posts soon followed from other parts of Russia. The Associated Press news agency found social media posts looking for at least 13 other young men reportedly serving in Moscow whose families could not find them.

A woman spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because she feared for her son’s safety. She said her son, an enlisted soldier, had been aboard the Moscow for several months before telling her in early February that the ship was about to leave for exercises. In the weeks after that, she lost contact with him.

She said the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine worried her 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 boat but did not say where it was.

She didn’t start looking for him until a day after she learned of trouble on the Moskva, as an official statement from the Ministry of Defense said the crew had been evacuated. But no one called or texted her son’s whereabouts, and she became agitated.

Calls to various military officials and hotlines led her to nowhere at first, but she persevered. She made a phone call on her way to the grocery store with bleak news – her son was listed as missing and the chances of him surviving in the icy water were slim.

“I said ‘but you said you saved everyone’ and he said ‘I only have the list’. I screamed ‘what are you doing?!'” she told The Associated Press. “I was hysterical, right at the bus stop [where I was standing], I feel like the ground beneath my feet is collapsing. I started shaking. “

The Kremlin’s statement about the loss of the ship and the fate of its crew follows a historical pattern in which Russia has often encountered bad news and silenced, denied or underestimated casualties. Previous examples include the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine in 1986, the sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000, and the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya.

political blow

The accounts of the families could not be independently verified, but they were largely unchallenged by Russian authorities.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment and referred the question to the Defense Ministry, when the Associated Press questioned the official statement about the sailors being evacuated during a daily conference call with reporters. His family has questioned.

The Defense Department also did not comment on the outcry — until Friday, when it finally revealed that 27 crew members were missing, one of whom was confirmed dead. However, the ministry has still not acknowledged the attack on the ship.

Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov met with the crew after the sinking of the Moscow.
Admiral Nikolay Yevmenov, commander of the Russian Navy, meets the crew of the sunken Moscow in Sevastopol, Crimea, this still image is taken from a video [Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

Political analyst Abbas Galiamov said the sinking of Moscow was a major political blow for President Vladimir Putin, not so much because of an outcry from his family as it hurt Putin image of military power.

“This characteristic, probably, is under attack now because we are talking about the destruction of the fleet,” Gallyamov said. But the families’ plight underscores that “people should not trust Russian authorities”.

Meanwhile, some families whose sons have gone missing plan to continue to find out the truth.

“Now we’ll turn to figuring out how long a person can be ‘missing’ on the high seas,” Shkrebets posted Friday.