KYIV -- Relatives of crew members of the sunken Moskva missile cruiser are accusing the Russian Ministry of Defence of lying after it made a suspect admission of losses last month.
The Moskva sank in the Black Sea on April 14 after two Ukrainian missiles slammed into it, a senior Pentagon official said.
The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet had been leading Russia's naval effort in the nearly two-month-old conflict in Ukraine, playing a central role in the siege of the port city of Mariupol.
The Russian Defence Ministry on April 22, wishing to avoid admitting the Ukrainians scored a huge military success, said the Moskva sank due a fire and an ammunition explosion.
"One serviceman was killed; another 27 crew members went missing," the ministry said, adding that "the remaining 396 members" had been evacuated.
The announcement came after authorities first said that all crew members had been evacuated.
However, as many as 400 crew members may have been lost, Ukrainian officials have estimated.
"We believe that they saved 58 people. ... there were a total of 510 people on the cruiser," Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, said in an interview with Ukrayinska Pravda on April 22.
"But if there isn't a person, there's nothing to bury, and there's no need to hold any ceremony ... This is the Russians' policy," Danilov said.
The two anti-ship missiles that hit the Moskva likely caused major casualties, according to Alexander Kovalenko, a military and political analyst for the website InfoResist.
Based on photos and videos, it appeared the missiles hit the holds where ammunition was stored, Kovalenko said.
"That's a lot of dead and seriously wounded -- definitely not one or two," he said.
The obfuscation by the Russian regime is nothing new to Central Asians, who find Moscow still denying misdeeds that date back to the 1930s.
In 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying Soviet guilt in organising the 1930s famine in Kazakhstan.
"We are convinced that manipulation of historical facts by using the 'nationalist card' will not succeed in deceiving the peoples of Central Asia, who have a brotherly bond with Russians," the Foreign Ministry said at the time.
'Where's our son?'
More than one seaman died aboard the Moskva, other evidence suggests.
A source in Sevastopol, where the ship was based, told Caravanserai that grieving residents are aware that a number of sailors died but are unable to discuss it openly.
The atmosphere in the city is "oppressive", he said.
"You can mourn for the ship but not the dead sailors. Allegedly there were no casualties. There's no mourning," the source said on the condition of anonymity.
"If you say there were losses, you'll immediately be accused of violating the law against spreading false stories or discrediting the military," he added.
He said he had noticed an increase in caskets being taken to local hospitals, reportedly for cremation.
Since the sinking of the Moskva, several families have said on social media or in statements to independent Russian or foreign press that they cannot find their sons and relatives who were serving on the Moskva.
Dmitry Shkrebets, the father of Yegor Shkrebets -- a missing conscript from Yalta and a cook on the cruiser -- is still trying to learn the fate of his son.
"Today we called the Ministry of Defence's hotline with the same question: where's our son? We were told that our son, Yegor Shkrebets, is not on the lists of dead, wounded or missing," Shkrebets wrote on VKontakte April 22.
Shkrebets wrote earlier that he knew of at least 15 sailors from the Moskva whose relatives were being kept in the dark.
The Moskva has received more publicity because it had conscripts on board, according to Kovalenko, the military analyst.
Russia's Defence Ministry in March acknowledged that conscripts were fighting in Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin denied that point on various occasions.
"Historically, the way it's been in Russia is that the navy and air force are the elite of the Russian military compared to the ground forces. Those who go into those branches primarily represent the families of officers, the families of [professional] service personnel, in which army traditions are honoured," Kovalenko said.
"The most important skill for them is to not open their mouths more than necessary," he added.
"But there is a different problem with conscripts ... They don't have that tradition of keeping a secret. And then when sailors from families like that go missing, panic begins to escalate," Kovalenko said.
Authorities are now trying to keep relatives quiet, according to Kovalenko.
"The social network accounts of those who have announced that their relatives have died or are missing are being blocked. The majority of them posted, but now it’s like their mouths are being plugged up," said the source in Sevastopol.
Kovalenko drew a parallel between the sinking of the Moskva and that of the Kursk, the Russian nuclear submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in 2000 with the loss of all hands.
At the time, 118 sailors died, but the Russian government reverted to type and initially hid the number of fatalities. The difference between then and now was that Putin, only months into his presidency, had not finished muzzling the press.
"[The Kremlin] also gave different numbers. For about a year, everybody talked about it, and [the Kremlin] even tried to pay off the relatives to keep quiet. But ultimately it couldn't hide the truth, and the story got huge publicity," Kovalenko said.
Attempts to find out the number of dead and missing in the sinking of the Moskva could take more than a year.
"The Moskva's manifests need to be made public. Then we'll find out the exact numbers, and over time we'll be able to determine the fate of each crew member," Kovalenko said.
Even without a firm casualty figure, for now "Moscow has enough losses to be ashamed of in this disgraceful war. Russia is the first country in the world in 40 years to lose its flagship," he added.