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The unclear fate of a top Russian commander


On Monday, Ukraine said it had killed the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in a missile strike on the naval headquarters in occupied Crimea. But earlier today, the Russian Defense Ministry published a video appearing to show that same commander participating in a meeting with top military officials. So what might all this tell us about the war in Ukraine? Well, to help us think this through, we're joined now by retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis. Welcome.


CHANG: So let me just get your initial reaction to this whole back and forth over this reported killing of the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. What do you make of it?

STAVRIDIS: First of all, there's always fog in war, so we don't know if he has been killed or not. There's no way to know when this video was made. But here's the point. If he was killed as a result of Ukrainian action, that's the first time an admiral has been killed in combat since the Second World War.

CHANG: Wow. OK, well, let's just follow that path through a little bit. If what Ukrainians have said is true, that they did kill a top Russian admiral and his staff - and again, we don't have the facts confirmed as of the timing of this taping - lay out for us what kind of effect you see that having on Russian operations.

STAVRIDIS: First, there will be an immediate tactical effect because when you cut the head off a snake, the snake is not very effective anymore. This staff and potentially this admiral were the ones actually directing the entire Black Sea Fleet, which has a vital mission in this war, which is to cut off the Ukrainian economy. So immediately, there'll be confusion, lack of direction, lack of orders. No. 2, there is a huge morale factor here. Again, if it's true, particularly the admiral killed, that is the type of thing that reverberates down to the youngest sailor on the deckplates. And then No. 3, strategically, where do you take the Black Sea Fleet if you're the Russian minister of defense when you have nobody to command it? The strategic impact will go on for a year or so until a new commander is appointed, gets experience, comes into play. So this potentially, if true, is going to have a very significant impact on the war at sea in Ukraine.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you about this. Defense analysts have talked for months about Ukrainian forces severing the land bridge to isolate Crimea. Now we're seeing the Ukrainians hammering Russian forces, especially naval forces in Crimea. Is this a new strategy or is this just part of isolating Crimea?

STAVRIDIS: I think it's the latter. Since Day 1 of this conflict and really reaching back to 2014, when the Russians first invaded and occupied Crimea, this has been a central goal. And they know - the Ukrainians know in order to consummate this goal, they have to isolate the Russian forces that are on that peninsula. They do it by severing the land bridge, as you mentioned a moment ago, and depleting the forces of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. That severs, if you will, the sea bridge. They need to do both of those. I think they're making real progress.

CHANG: And what is the overall impact of hitting Russian naval vessels? In real terms, does that mean Russia won't be able to fire cruise missiles into Ukraine? It'll prevent grain shipments into the Black Sea? What are the practical implications?

STAVRIDIS: You just hit two of them, the most important two. One is, as you say, the use of the Black Sea Fleet to launch these cruise missiles will be depleted because of lack of command and control because various ships are being sunk or damaged. And then more importantly, in my view, strategically, the Russians lose the ability to perform sea control on the Black Sea, meaning that they will not be able to stop grain shipments. Their objective in doing that is to strangle the Ukrainian economy, and they've had pretty good success so far. So any damage to that Black Sea Fleet is very important for the Ukrainians.

CHANG: That is retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis. Thank you so much for joining us today.

STAVRIDIS: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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