A video released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense purporting to show dozens of uniformed crew members from the missile cruiser Moskva standing in formation, apparently days after the ship sank, did not answer lingering questions about the fate of the vessel and its more than 500 personnel.
The questions reached the point Saturday where even Vladimir Solovyev, a popular prime-time talk-show host whose pronouncements often reflect the Kremlin line, began asking what went wrong.
Mr. Solovyev, describing himself as “outraged” over the sinking, then asked a series of rhetorical questions that picked at both versions of how the Black Sea fleet vessel sank overnight on Wednesday.
If the ship caught fire before sinking, as the Russians claim, then why did it not have a system to extinguish such blazes, the television host wondered aloud. If the ship was sunk by two Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles, as Ukrainian and unidentified U.S. Defense Department officials have claimed, then why did it lack an antimissile system?
“Just explain to me how you managed to lose it,” Mr. Solovyev asked no one in particular on his Saturday show, Solovyev Live, when he has no guests in the studio.
The segment was unusual not least because Mr. Solovyev broached the idea that Ukraine had managed to sink the Moskva, one of the biggest naval losses anywhere in the world since World War II.
It comes as more pundits and other television talking heads in Russia have started referring to the fighting in Ukraine as a “war” — although they have tended to use the term when suggesting that the whole of NATO, including the United States, is ganging up on Russia. They do not describe Russia’s invasion itself as part of a war, nor do they mention the fact that the Kremlin started the conflict.
The Kremlin squelched any open discussion about the conflict by promulgating a law in early March that criminalizes spreading any “false information” about what Russia calls its “special military operation,” including calling it a war, with violators facing up to 15 years in prison.
Overall, official Russian media continues to refer to the invasion as a “special military operation,” even while expanding the definition of the enemy. One state paper last week referred to the enemy next door as “Ukrainian-American neo-Nazism.”
While carefully scripted television news programs still use the “military operation” formula, guests in the heat of the shouting that is a trademark of Russian TV talk shows often yell about “war.”
The even angrier tone than usual when discussing the sinking of the Moskva indicated that many commentators found Ukraine culpable. Skipping the official explanation that it caught fire, for example, Vladimir Bortko, a film director and former member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, said on Thursday that the assault on the vessel should be treated as an assault on Russia itself.
“The special military operation has ended, it ended last night when our motherland was attacked,” he said, after asking the other panelists to remind him what Russia was calling the war. “The attack on our territory is casus belli, an absolute cause for war for real.” He suggested that possible responses included bombing Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv; the transportation networks that allowed foreign dignitaries to visit; or something more sinister: “Bomb them once and that is it.”
His ranting about war brought an admonition from Olga Skabaeeva, the host of the popular “60 Minutes” program, who said that he was talking in the context of NATO aggression against Russia. Some analysts think all the talk of NATO attacking Russia is meant to lay the groundwork for a possible general mobilization of the male population — martial law is a necessary prior step, and a declaration of martial law requires going to war or being under threat.
Until now, however, Russian news programs are not calling the events in Ukraine a war. They take their cues from the Ministry of Defense’s briefings.
“It is all the presidential administration with their giant printer, there are no differences of opinion available,” said Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst based in the United States. “They will not risk interpreting reports from the Ministry of Defense.”
When it comes to the Moskva, Russian media reports have stuck to the official version promulgated by the ministry and echoed on TASS, a state news agency. That version held that a fire onboard had ignited an ammunition magazine, seriously damaging the Moskva, named for the Russian capital.
After the crew of at least 510 men was evacuated, according to the ministry, the ship sank in rough seas while being towed back to Sevastopol, the fleet’s Crimean headquarters. Ukraine has said it struck the ship with two missiles and the vessel rapidly sank.
The defense ministry posted a video on its official Telegram channel, as well as on the channel of its Zvezda television network, on Saturday, showing Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, the commander of the Russian Navy, and other officers purportedly meeting with what it said were some Moskva crew members in Sevastopol.
The 26-second clip showed the admiral addressing dozens of sailors, but there was no explanation about the fate of the rest. “The traditions of the missile cruiser Moskva will be carefully preserved and continued in the way it has always been accepted in the navy,” he said, adding that the crew would continue to serve elsewhere.
Social media posts suggested that some of the crew members had died, but the toll is unclear. Videos posted online from an unofficial memorial service at a monument to the 300th anniversary of the Black Sea fleet showed a wreath with a ribbon bearing the inscription “To the ship and sailors.”
Radio Liberty, a U.S. government network based outside Russia, reached the widow of one midshipman who confirmed his death and said that 27 crew members remained missing.