KYIV, Ukraine — Six weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukraine sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, dealing a serious blow to the enemy navy, and, a Ukrainian official said, killing the ship’s captain.
“We do not mourn,” an adviser to the interior minister at the time, Anton Gerashchenko, said.
The only problem was that the captain — or somebody who resembled him — later appeared in a video of survivors released by the Russian navy. He had escaped his sinking ship, the Moskva, the video seemed to indicate.
It has never been clear what happened to the captain, Anton Kuprin, or whether the reports of his death were deliberately put out by Ukraine to sow confusion or were simply a result of mistaken intelligence.
What is clear is that misdirection, disinformation and propaganda are weapons regularly deployed in Russia’s war in Ukraine to buoy spirits at home, demoralize the enemy or lead opponents into a trap. And it is often hard to know when reports are false or why they may have been disseminated.
Now, Ukraine and Russia are offering dueling narratives over whether a more senior Russian naval officer, the commanding admiral of the Black Sea Fleet, is alive or dead.
Ukraine’s special operations forces on Monday asserted they had killed the commander, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, in a strike on his headquarters in the city of Sevastopol, along with 33 other officers. On Tuesday, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, deferred questions about his fate to the military. Minutes later, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a video of a meeting of defense officials that appeared to show Admiral Sokolov, and other commanders, appearing by video link.
Soon afterward, Ukraine said it was clarifying whether he had died, which leaves open the question of why the military seemed so sure the day before.
Ukraine has deftly used misdirection in the war. Through the summer of 2022, multiple officials telegraphed a looming offensive to reclaim the city of Kherson, in the country’s south, and military analysts said Russia redeployed troops from the northeast to bolster defenses in the south.
Ukraine then staged a surprise attack in the northeastern Kharkiv region, breaking through thinly defended lines and forcing a chaotic retreat. The attack on the south continued, but at a slower pace, and Ukraine’s army reclaimed Kherson two months later.
Few military analysts, on the other hand, believe the Ukrainian military’s optimistic daily account of Russian casualties running into the hundreds that is nonetheless reported widely in Ukrainian media.
If Admiral Sokolov did, in fact, die, the Russian video released Tuesday could suggest an effort to deny a success for Ukraine by muddying the waters over his fate.
The Ukrainian claim, alternatively, could have been intended to sow confusion in Russian ranks over the chain of command or merely to emphasize the success of the strike on the headquarters that had pierced Russian air defenses in a key Russian naval port.
The strike on the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters was a very real achievement for Ukraine, whatever the fate of the admiral, just as the sinking of the Russian flagship was a major blow to Moscow, even if the captain survived. (Russia continues to maintain the ship sank as a result of an accidental explosion.)
Mr. Gerashchenko said that, in the end, war propaganda is only effective when it accompanies battlefield successes. The missile strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet last week, he said, was a “stunning success of Ukrainian intelligence and the air force that fired the cruise missiles on a supposedly well-defended site.”
“You cannot win the propaganda war without winning the real war,” he added.