ICC Issues War Crimes Warrant for Former Head of the Black Sea Fleet

Adm. Viktor Sokolov (Russian Ministry of Defense file image)
Adm. Viktor Sokolov during his tenure with the Black Sea Fleet (Russian Ministry of Defense file image)

Published Mar 5, 2024 6:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for a former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, alleging that he committed war crimes in Ukraine. The move follows just weeks after Sokolov was removed from command

Under Sokolov's command, the fleet's submarines and surface warships kept up a steady tempo of missile strikes on Ukraine over the winter of 2022-23. These were accompanied by air-launched missile attacks carried out by the Russian Air Force. 

The ICC believes that the targets included the civilian electrical grid, as laid out in detail by a recent U.S.-sponsored study. A joint investigation by the Yale School of Public Health and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy recently identified 66 attacks on Ukraine’s power generation and transmission infrastructure between the fall of 2022 and the spring of 2023. 

According to Nathaniel Raymond, head of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab, the attacks had the potential to directly endanger Ukrainian civilians who need power for heating. "The fact of the matter is, especially in Ukraine in the winter, electrical power is essential to what is used – in international law the term is 'means necessary for survival,'" explained Raymond in a press briefing Monday. 

These strikes were openly acknowledged by at least one senior Russian official, Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev. In late October 2022, after the attacks began, Medvedev suggested that "the power supply situation will get better" only if Ukraine gave up its sovereignty and yielded to Russia's demand for "denazification."

"It requires recognizing the legitimacy of Russia’s demands within the framework of the special military operation and its results, reflected in [the Russian] constitution,” said Medvedev. “Then the power supply situation will get better.”

Port facilities, including grain terminals, were also hit by Russian munitions. In all, the Yale study identified more than 220 civilian targets struck by Russian long-range munitions over the course of the 2022-23 winter. 

For his alleged role in this campaign, the ICC has charged Sokolov with the war crimes of directing attacks at civilian objects and causing excessive incidental harm to civilians, along with the crime against humanity of inhumane acts.

Former long-range aviation commander Lt. Gen. Sergei Kobylash faces the same set of charges.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the new warrants. "Every Russian commander who orders strikes against Ukrainian civilians and critical infrastructure must know that justice will be served," Zelensky said in a statement. 

Like the United States, Russia is not a signatory to the ICC's founding treaty, and it is unlikely to extradite the suspects for trial. However, the warrant will make it more difficult for Sokolov and Kobylash to travel abroad.