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OPINION

Who killed the deputy mayor's daughter? Tragedy strikes the beaches of Russian-occupied Crimea

On Sunday, June 23, dozens of vacationers on a beach in occupied Crimea were injured, and five were killed, after Russian air defenses shot down a Ukrainian missile over Sevastopol. The death of Sonia Averyanova, daughter of the deputy mayor of Magadan, has received the most media attention. Russian propaganda is exploiting the child’s tragic demise, accusing Kyiv and Washington of deliberately killing civilians with cluster munitions. But Oleg Pshenichny, an editor at The Insider, is convinced that the responsibility for the loss of life among civilians lies not only with the Kremlin propagandists who continue to lure tourists to occupied Crimea, and not only with Vladimir Putin, who chose to start the war in the first place, but also with Oleg Averyanov, a high-ranking official who despite 18 years in the military organized a family vacation within sight of a Russian air base used for strikes on Ukraine. Meanwhile, the tourist season in Crimea continues, as Russians are determined to catch a bit of sun on the sands of a war zone.

RU

“No one's bombing anything here. It's fine.”

Sonia Averyanova, a nine-year-old schoolgirl from Magadan in the Russian Far East, traveled 11,000 kilometers for a seaside vacation with her parents. The patriotic family chose the Crimean port of Sevastopol as their destination. Sonia's father is the deputy mayor of Magadan, so finding money for a family trip to the Black Sea coast was not a problem. Sevastopol and its vicinity boasts several beach resorts, all widely advertised online and on national television.

June 23 was a sunny Sunday, so the Averyanovs went for a dip at the Uchkuevka beach. Around noon, the sky above the sand was ripped by explosions, and red-hot shards of metal — Kremlin media would later call them “submunitions” — rained down on the crowd of tourists. One of the shards hit and killed Sonia. The overall casualty toll is five dead and dozens injured. The tragedy occurred a few kilometers away from the Belbek military airfield.

A map showing the location of the tragedy, The Belbek airfield to the north of the affected beaches is marked with a fighter jet icon
A map showing the location of the tragedy, The Belbek airfield to the north of the affected beaches is marked with a fighter jet icon

The Uchkuevka beach and park are located on the site of the 17th-century Crimean Tatar village of Uch-Kuyu (“Three Wells”), which was abandoned before the end of the 19th century. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the settlement was briefly revived, becoming home to 37 Russians and one Estonian as per the 1926 census. Then the site was abandoned once again.

Named after a nearby river, the Belbek military airfield was used as an airbase in Soviet times and became famous shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In August 1991, Soviet hardliners disrupted Mikhail Gorbachev’s Crimean vacation by staging an attempted coup d’etat. After the plot failed, the general secretary flew back to Moscow from Belbek. When Crimea became an “autonomous republic” within independent Ukraine, Belbek was partially remodeled as a civilian airfield, bringing in planeloads of tourists from Kyiv and other cities.

In 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Belbek again became an exclusively military airfield. Although the occupation authorities expressed their intention to use it as a civilian airport, and even though Moscow allocated almost $35 million for this purpose, the money simply disappeared somewhere, and the civilian airport was never revived. Instead, the site was gradually surrounded by air defense batteries and other military installations, a process that only accelerated after the start of the full-scale war in 2022.

Nevertheless, “tourist infrastructure” sprang up rapidly in Uchkuevka and the neighboring district of Lyubimovka, which is two kilometers from the airfield. In 2019, a fancy park was laid out here, and its local resorts have been actively advertised throughout Russia, with dozens of websites offering package tours. The scope of advertising did not decrease even after 2022, with domestic Russian propaganda still presenting Crimea as an oasis of prosperity — a picture-perfect holiday destination.

The proximity of Uchkuevka and Lyubimovka to a military airfield did nothing to stop the development of tourist infrastructure

Nothing changed even when it became clear that Putin's blitzkrieg had failed. Ukraine is desperately defending itself, and its drones and missiles have begun to reach Crimea, targeting the Russian planes, missiles, and ships that launch merciless attacks against Dnipro, Odesa, Mykolaiv, and dozens of other Ukrainian cities.

The last widely publicized Ukrainian attack on Belbek was in mid-May, when missiles hit the airfield, damaging several combat aircraft and burning down a fuel and lubricant depot along with several S-400 SAM launchers.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere on Sevastopol’s beaches was aptly summed up in a video blog post shot in Uchkuevka on the eve of the tragedy:

“Everything's fine here. Everything's calm. Whenever you turn on the news, you hear about ‘strikes on Sevastopol’ ...No one's bombing anything here. Everything's fine. Maybe they're bombing somewhere, but it's far from here. And the city itself is great. Everything's quiet, and people are having a good time. They say it's bad in Crimea. It’s not bad at all — it's wonderful in fact! You wouldn't say it’s a frontline city. There's really no way to tell. Pretty girls are walking around. Some unattractive ones too...”

This is the place the deputy mayor of Magadan chose as a vacation destination for his family.

The timeline of the tragedy and its coverage in Russia’s propagandist press

On Sunday, vacationers heard “pops” somewhere nearby in the sky and also saw “a cloud of smoke.” At first, no one understood what was happening, as no air alarms were sounded and no warnings or announcements were made. (The Crimean authorities recently decided to cut back on the frequency of air raid alerts to keep tourists at ease.)

Suddenly, a fiery hailstorm spilled onto the beach.

At 11:47 a.m., Mikhail Razvozhaev, the Kremlin-appointed “governor” of Sevastopol, wrote on his Telegram channel that, “a missile attack has been repelled,” with Russian air defense shooting down five Ukrainian missiles, and a reported 14 people injured on the beaches of Uchkuevka and Lyubimovka. As often happens, the scope of the tragedy was not apparent at first: locals saw ambulances rushing towards the seashore, and eyewitness testimonies began to appear on social media replete with photos and videos from showing beachgoers with shrapnel wounds receiving assistance from doctors and other tourists.

At 1:29 p.m., 20 people were reported injured, and Russia’s Ministry of Defense stated that “a terrorist attack was carried out on the civilian infrastructure of the city of Sevastopol with US-supplied ATACMS operational-tactical missiles equipped with cluster warheads,” indicating the time of the attack as 12:15, rather than 11:47 a.m.

In other words, from 1,850 kilometers away, it supposedly took the ministry in Moscow only 74 minutes to determine the type and origins of the missiles fired and to qualify it as a “terrorist attack on civilian infrastructure” — as if Ukrainian forces, after waiting months to receive high-precision, long-range, expensive ATACMS, had deliberately expended them on a beach resort.

Meanwhile, everyone and their mother seemed to spend the rest of the day scouring over satellite images and theorizing as to what actually happened. Even die-hard Russian “patriots” and “war correspondents” pointed out that an ATACMS explosion right over the beach would have caused far more damage, and that the shrapnel in the photos looked more like it came from an S-300 system. Many of those posts, however, were quickly taken down.

After the official announcement that a “U.S. cluster munition missile” had exploded over the beach, the casualty toll began to skyrocket. By late afternoon, official figures stated that “four people died, including two children; 151 people have sought medical attention and 82 were hospitalized.” It was then that the mayor of Magadan announced nine-year-old Sonia Averyanova was among the dead. Her father, the deputy mayor then gave his first interviews about the incident. The grief-stricken official first blamed himself for the girl's death but soon moved on to cursing Ukraine and America, promising to personally take revenge on all those responsible.

The next day, Sevastopol went into official mourning while Kremlin propagandists rolled up their sleeves and got down to work. The ultimate highlight of the information campaign came when Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in its trademark “diplomatic” style, blamed U.S. Ambassador Lynn Tracy for “yet another bloody crime” committed by Kyiv, which had been “tutored and armed by Washington.” The Russian ministry spoke of “a targeted missile attack on the civilian population of Sevastopol, which resulted in numerous casualties, including children,” insisting that the U.S. “bears equal responsibility with the Kyiv regime for this atrocity.”

On Monday morning, Kremlin propagandists rolled up their sleeves and got down to work

The Americans were “reminded” that targeting and mission inputs for ATACMS missiles “are carried out by U.S. military specialists.” Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova went so far as to call the strike a “ritual crime,” apparently timed by Ukraine’s Jewish president to coincide with an Orthodox Christian holiday.

Sonia Averyanova, whose body lay in a Sevastopol morgue, was used as yet another supposed symbol of Kyiv's and Washington's crimes. The girl's horrible death has become a blessing for Putin's propaganda — a true stroke of luck.

In most cases, it is a futile endeavor to attempt an investigation based on Telegram posts, photos, and satellite images. And so I will not do it. Instead, I only have one question: what is there in common between the Jun. 23 Sevastopol beach incident, the Jun. 23 shootings in Dagestan, the Mar. 22 terror attack at Crocus City Hall, and the apartment building blown up in Belgorod on May 12? The answer: the total absence of a professional investigation or trial, an illustration of just how conveniently the Putin regime has destroyed Russia’s judicial and law enforcement institutions, turning them into lifeless mummies that broadcast the desires, judgments, and verdicts passed down from the mob boss.

The tragedies in Sevastopol, Dagestan, and Moscow's Crocus City Hall were never properly investigated

The history of civilization shows that an independent investigation followed by a fair trial is the best — in most cases, the only — way to establish truth in complex situations. When certain evidence is either not collected or is selectively excluded, any conclusions become nothing but conjecture and speculation. And of course, a truly independent investigation is something the Russian government would never allow, as we all saw at the time of the Flight MH17 crash, when Russia went so far as to conjure a false witness, hiring a conman to play the role of a “Spanish air traffic controller” in order to accuse Ukraine of committing a crime that was carried out by Russia itself

Meanwhile, it is common knowledge that Russian propaganda, in the service of the dictator in the Kremlin, lies daily — shamelessly, on a massive scale, and with the use of all available emotional triggers: dead women and children, tragedy, and pain. Notably, the morning after the tragedy in Sevastopol, the narrative about “an ATACMS missile that exploded over the beach, injuring and killing hundreds of civilians” became an accepted truth not only for Russia’s official press, but also for many independent media and international outlets. We have observed a similar pattern in Gaza, with the world press speculating about “Israeli crimes” based on unreputable “reports from the Hamas Ministry of Health.”

Amid the fog, blood, and sudden explosions of war, only one thing is certain: among the victims of the explosion was an innocent girl, Sonia Averyanova, whom her parents had brought from far away to war-torn Crimea for a vacation.

Her father, her killer

Oleg Averyanov was born in 1976 in Krymsk, near Russia’s Black Sea coast, but went to Vladivostok to study in a military academy. After serving in the army for 18 years, in 2011 he went to Magadan to take a job as head of the city’s department of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Averyanov eventually became deputy mayor of the hundred-thousand-strong city. Even if his academic performance was not stellar there is nothing in the military veteran’s training or career to suggest that he could have been unaware of the risks inherent in bringing his family to a frontline peninsula, regardless of what television commercials may have claimed. And yet, two and a half years into full-scale war, he purchased a package tour and flew his family off to occupied Crimea.

Averyanov, who served in the army for 18 years, could not have been unaware of the risks of bringing his family to a frontline peninsula

Vacations aside, what does the deputy mayor do at work when he isn’t busy saving Magadan from natural disasters? He travels around the Russian Far East, inspecting the morale of newly mobilized troops before their deployment to Ukraine. Media coverage has shown Averyanov visiting a marine brigade preparing to go off and conquer Russia’s embattled neighbor. In April 2024, he offered a farewell speech for conscripts, and the local press is brimming with reports of Averyanov's activity. Like his colleagues all over Russia, he is busy training, equipping, collecting, and admonishing young people — before sending them to kill and be killed.

How many young men has Averyanov sent to Ukraine? A fairly accurate count of how many have never returned would not be too hard to make, provided we were given access to the necessary documents. The number of Ukrainians killed specifically by his charges is a bit more difficult to calculate, but Averyanov’s complicity in their murders is undeniable. Now that his daughter is dead, he claims to have a “legitimate reason” to incite even more hatred, bringing the thirst for Ukrainian blood to a new level.

Oleg Averyanov in the middle
Oleg Averyanov in the middle

Sadly, this is not a new development. Oleg Averyanov was among the most ardent supporters of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its “covertly” sponsored war in Donbas. He was among the people Putin knew he could count on when launching a full-scale war in 2022. He has displayed the utmost professionalism and dedication in recruiting and mobilizing cannon fodder, fueling the very war that has now claimed the life of his daughter. It is amazing how sure he was of his family’s safety while taking them to a place where the summer sun is intertwined so closely with the heat of the war.

Averyanov has displayed the utmost professionalism and dedication in recruiting and mobilizing cannon fodder for Putin’s war

And now Putin and his cronies will make the most of the late Sonia Averyanova’s demise, especially considering their love for “sacred victims.” Again, their freedom to exploit an innocent girl’s death is dependent on the absence of any serious investigation or fair trial. But while we may never get an objective picture of exactly what happened over the beach in Sevastopol on Jun. 23, this much is indisputable: Putin is the one who unleashed this war; Russia attacked Ukraine, and not vice versa; international law and its application suggest the inherent right of self-defense; and Ukraine pursues legitimate military targets within the restrictions imposed upon Kyiv by its international partners.

At Putin’s behest, Russian authorities do all they can to keep up the illusion of “peaceful life” in occupied Crimea, using civilians as human shields not unlike Hamas, and pouring money into the peninsula’s tourist industry ever since the fake “referendum” in 2014. Aggressive advertising and propagandist TV broadcasts have managed to dupe not only the average brainwashed viewer, but also loyalist “patriots” like Averyanov, who seems to have lost his basic professional instincts. As for his daughter Sonia, she was only a moth in the flame of war — and the very memory of her will quickly burn out in the propagandists’ hellfire. Even after Sonia’s tragedy, Sevastopol City Council head Vladimir Konstantinov announced that, “All hotels are fully booked. Everyone understands the difference between real danger and a certain risk. I’ll put it this way: today, Crimea is safe enough, and everyone is welcome. All beaches are open and swimmable — no problem there.”

“Today, Crimea is safe enough, and everyone is welcome. All beaches are open,” Head of Sevastopol City Council

As for the question in the title about who killed the deputy mayor’s daughter, I can answer with certainty: Sonia Averyanova was killed by international criminal Vladimir Putin and his armed forces, with active complicity from her own father, Oleg Averyanov.

* * *

As an afterword, we should all bear in mind that, according to the data verified by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Russian bombs and missiles killed at least 174 Ukrainian civilians and injured 690 in May 2024 alone.

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