(Not) Behind Enemy Lines VI: Hiding Russia's War in Ukraine


The all-but-certain involvement of Russian military forces in Eastern Ukraine has caused widespread international criticism. But what about  the voices of opposition at home? Leksika's Sean Crowley investigates, taking a look at how the rising casualty rate is effecting the Russian public's support for their comrades in the Donbass conflict. 


Background

As a member of Russia’s Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska; VDV), Sergeant Leonid Yuriyevich Kichatkin was stationed in Pskov with the 76th Airborne Division’s Unit 74268 where he also lived with his wife, Oksana, and children. Sergeant Kichatkin took great pride in being a paratrooper. Pictures on his wife’s VKontakte (a Russian social media website similar to Facebook) page of the couple in Pskov’s Botanical Gardens show Sergeant Kichatkin carrying a small pillow with “VDV” embroidered on it while he wears a tank-top in the same style as the telnyashka, the famous white undershirt with light blue stripes worn by Russian paratroopers.

In August 2014 Sergeant Kichatkin bid farewell to his wife as he deployed to Rostov. It would be their final conversation. On 22 August the following message appeared on Sergeant Kichatkin’s VKontakte page in red: “Dear friends!!!! Lyonya [Leonid] died, the burial will be at 10 a.m., the funeral service in Vybuty. Whoever wants to bid him farewell, come, we’ll be so pleased to see everyone. His wife, Oksana.” Earlier posts on Oksana Kichatikina’s own VKontakte page said that she was waiting desperately for her husband. When she finally learned of his death she posted “Life has stopped !!!!!!!!!!" and said that she expected her husband’s coffin “within five days.” Friends posted messages of condolence.

However, shortly after the message on Sergeant Kichatkin’s VKontakte page went viral, it was removed. A new message, presumably from Oksana, read, “My husband is alive and well and now we’re celebrating our daughter’s baptism.” Ivan Vasyunin, a Russkaya Planeta journalist, posted on Twitter that he spoke to both Oksana and a man who identified himself as Sergeant Kichatkin. Novaya Gazeta’s (New Gazette) Nina Petlyanova and Irina Tumanova, a reporter from the St. Petersburg-based newspaper Fontanka traveled to Pskov to find out more. Petlyanova called the Kichatkins and Oksana answered insisting that her husband was alive and someone hacked his VKontakte page. “Sergeant Kichatkin” then answered the phone, and said that he had not gone anywhere because his wife was pregnant and that he had three other children to attend to. To prove that he was alive he also offered to “sing a song” or “dance for the video camera.” The Kichatkins later asked people not to call. On 24 August Sergeant Kichatkin’s VKontakte page was removed.

Except other evidence indicated Sergeant Kichatkin was not alive and well; his funeral took place on 25 August. According to his tombstone, he died on 19 August, three days before his wife announced his death on VKontakte. Petlyanova’s phone conversation with “Sergeant Kichatkin” occurred on 24 August, the day before the funeral. Both the sergeant’s father and uncle attended the funeral. Tumanova also visited also visited the cemetery. She found several soldiers throwing dirt on two graves. One was for Sergeant Kichatkin and the other was for Sergeant Aleksandr Sergeyevich Osipov (who died on 20 August according to his tombstone, a day after Sergeant Kichatkin). 

There was a major standing near Sergeant Osipov’s grave who identified himself as the sergeant’s father. He mistook Tumanova for a fellow mourner. At the major was a little table with bottles of vodka, bread, and tomatoes for the wake. He drank to the memory of his son, “He wanted to be a hero…Soldiers have a job to do. Somebody has to pay their debt to the motherland.”  Sergeant Osipov’s father regretted sending his own son off to war. When Tumanova asked him if the two men died in Ukraine and he responded, “Where else?” He said that his son’s convoy was caught between mortar and Grad fire after spending only a week in Donbas. The major did not know how many were killed but said that there were more to bury. Following family inquiries, the nameplates on Sergeants Kichatkin and Osipov’s graves were removed.

Sergeant Kichatkin’s story is hardly unique. Since Russia began its intervention in eastern Ukraine, there have been numerous cases of active-duty Russian soldiers killed in action returning home in secret. The Russian non-governmental organization (NGO), Committee For Soldiers’ Mothers has been particularly interested in these cases. The organization was founded in 1989 and is currently headed by Valentina Melnikova. However, attempts by NGOs and investigative journalists to look into the situation have been met with fierce resistance from the Russian government. The state has even gone so far as to threaten the soldiers’ families if they reveal any information about Russia’s covert war in eastern Ukraine.

Homecoming

On 2 June 2014 Russian photojournalist Maria Turchenkova published a report on a truck marked “Cargo-200” crossing the Russo-Ukrainian border. Cargo-200 is a military euphemism long-used in Russia to describe those who died in war. Onboard were reportedly the bodies of 31 dead Russians who died assaulting the Donetsk Airport in May 2014. Aleksandr Boroday, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika; DPR or DNR), confirmed that those killed were Russian citizens. Turchenkova received further confirmation when she spotted coffins and photographed several notices from the Donetsk Regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination, which also identified the deceased as Russian citizens.

The dead included Yuriy Fyodorovich Abrosimov (born 1982) and Sergey Borisovich Zhdanovich (born 1966) who was a retired instructor at the Federal Security Service’s (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) Center for Special Assignments and a veteran of Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Zhdanovich underwent training at a camp in the Rostov oblast before deploying to Donbas. According to Russian authorities, the deceased died in a training accident at the Rostov camp. The families received large financial compensations and signed non-disclosure agreements.       

At 0630 hours on 2 September 2014 a captain from Russia’s 106th Guards Airborne Division arrived at the outskirts of the remote village of Podsolnechnoye in the Samara region of southern Russia located between the Volga River and Kazakhstan. The captain had traveled over 1,400 kilometers from Rostov on the Russo-Ukrainian border. His only companion on the journey was a sealed zinc coffin containing the body of 20-year-old Corporal Sergey Andrianov, a paratrooper from the 106th’s 137th Guards Airborne Regiment. 

There to meet the captain were Corporal Andrianov’s uncle and older brother. His sister soon joined them while his mother, Natasha, remained inside. The family had spent five days waiting for the body, and when the coffin was finally opened, Corporal Andrianov’s sister let out a banshee-like scream at last prompting his mother to exit the house and inspect the coffin. She still wanted to believe that her son was wounded and being treated. When Natasha finally looked at the coffin, she barely recognized her son. Corporal Andrianov’s face was blue, his nose twisted, and his body covered in dirt. He also wore flip-flops instead of combat boots and fatigues that were far too large for him.

According to documents provided to his mother, Corporal Andrianov died from “blast trauma” with one shrapnel wound to the chest and damage to the heart. Other than this, Natasha received no additional information regarding her son’s death, namely what caused the blast and where he died. She knew that in mid-August 2014 Corporal Andrianov went to Rostov for training exercises. Soon after, his phone went out of service and he stopped responding to e-mails. On 21 August he called his mother from an unfamiliar number to tell her that he was safe. She said that he was whispering and sounded like he was in a hurry.

Government documents claim that at 2100 hours on 28 August 2014 Corporal Andrianov was carrying out a “special mission” in a “place of temporary dislocation.” The documents then reported “an explosion, from which Corporal Andrianov received a traumatic injury not compatible with life, as a result of which he died on the spot.” The paperwork was signed and issued in Rostov, and the family was informed of the death seven days later. Natasha considers the lack of information “a government crime.”

The Andrianovs were not the only family to receive a trademark zinc coffin. Yelena Tumanova, a hospital orderly from the Mari El republic, said that her son, Anton, told her by phone on 10 August 2014 that he was deploying to Donetsk. On 20 August a coffin arrived in Mari El with the 20-year-old Tumanov’s face visible through a small window for his mother to see. His comrades told her that he lost his leg in an artillery strike. Yelena now wants someone held accountable for her son’s death.

Before joining the military, Tumanov often voiced concerns about the state of the economy in his hometown of Kozmodemyansk. He saw no alternative to joining the military as the town had only two factories. Tumanov told his mother, “I need money. I’m not going to a war. I’m going to a job. There is no other job anyway.” According to his mother, “When he chose this path, we didn’t know they were sending our soldiers to Ukraine…If I would have known, if he would have known…he would not have joined up again. Even if he would have, I wouldn’t have let him. But he said, ‘Don’t worry, [the Russian President Vladimir] Putin says they won’t send anyone there.’”

Tumanov’s death certificate from a Rostov morgue said that he died at “the place of temporary deployment of military unit 27777…of massive blood loss [from] multiple shrapnel wounds.” In reality, he deployed to eastern Ukraine on active-duty with the 18th Motorized Brigade in August 2014. Tumanov’s commanders told him to turn in his phone and remove all identifiers, the standard procedure for a covert Russian insertion into Donbas. The commanding officers mocked and threatened those who refused. Tumanov entered Ukraine on 11 August 2014 with a large military column that included vehicles and 1,000 other soldiers. A smaller unit arrived in the Ukrainian town of Snezhnoe on 12 August 2014. Tumanov and a fellow soldier, Robert Artyunyan, documented their arrival in the town a day later.

Witnesses described a convoy moving through Torez and Snezhnoe on 13 August which included a BTR-80 armored personnel carrier (APC) and men with white bands on their arms and legs, usually the only identifiers worn by pro-Kremlin forces in Donbas. On 13 August Tumanov and his fellow soldiers were photographed with white bands and standing near a BTR-80. Hours after this, local media reports said that Kievan artillery hit the nearby Khimmash factory. The strike killed both Tumanov and Artyunyan. Another soldier, Rolan Ramazanov, survived the attack as he was in a BTR at the time. He suffered only a concussion and minor loss of hearing because the hatch was open. Tumanov and Artyunyan were “two-three steps from the BTR,” according to Ramazanov. Artyunyan died instantly while Tumanov received medical assistance but died on the operating table. Tumanov was buried in his hometown of Kozmodemyansk. 

Though usually tight-lipped about Russian soldiers operating in Ukraine, the Russian media made an exception on 5 September 2014 for reasons that became quickly apparent. On that day all three state-controlled channels aired reports about Russian soldiers killed fighting in eastern Ukraine. This was the first time Russian state television covered the subject. Footage aired included that of a 28-year-old paratrooper who was buried with full military honors and a gun salute. However, the networks toed the Kremlin line, claiming that he was a “volunteer” and a “patriot” who did not tell his wife or commanding officer about going to Ukraine.

Another so-called “volunteer” lionized by Russian state media was Lance Corporal Nikolay Kozlov, a paratrooper who lost his leg in Ukraine. State TV footage of Lance Corporal Kozlov featured sad piano music playing over footage of him lying in a hospital bed with his pregnant wife at his side. Lance Corporal Kozlov’s father, an Afghan War veteran, is proud of him while his uncle, Sergey, is more disillusioned, naturally creating a rift in the family. “He went there because he was ordered to…Move forward, destroy positions, and keep going,” said Sergey Kozlov.

According to Sergey, Lance Corporal Kozlov’s unit crossed the border into eastern Ukraine on 18 August 2014 and was ambushed six days later. In the ensuing firefight, a mortar blew off his right leg. According to a military report, “Due to impossibility of evacuation, the lance-corporal was admitted to military hospital 1602, three days after injury.” The report itself was issued at a military hospital in Rostov. On whether or not Lance Corporal Kozlov could have refused to cross the border, his uncle said, “How? An order is an order.”

The Intimidation Game

At Sergeant Kichatkin’s funeral there were around 100 people including several high-ranking military officers in attendance at the 15th century Russian Orthodox church on the outskirts of Pskov. The church cemetery was not far from the 76th Division headquarters. The crowd showed up even though the funeral was officially closed to the public. A police presence prevented any further entry. According to Pskov deputy Lev Schlossberg, it was the 76th that handled the funeral arrangements. Schlossberg, in addition to being a local parliamentarian in the opposition Yabloko Party in the Pskov regional assembly, is a newspaper editor.   

In May 2015 President Putin declared military deaths in peacetime – not just wartime – a state secret. Coincidently, the decree was made after a report was released by allies of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov regarding Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.  Despite the objections of human rights groups, Russia’s Supreme Court maintains the decree’s legality. The law covers injuries as well as deaths. It amended a decree to extend the list of state secrets to include information on casualties during special operations when there are no formal declarations of war. The previous list only prohibited “revealing personnel losses in wartime.” Revealing state secrets in Russia is punishable by a prison sentence of at most seven years.

President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, said that the act had no connection to the Ukraine crisis. Peskov referred to the decree as a “routine improvement in the law in the area of state secrets.”   According to Melnikova of Soldiers’ Mothers, withholding information on all military losses was a common practice during Soviet times, and this act just legalized it. Russia only revealed casualty numbers after the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. Theoretically, there is supposed to be more accountability and the death of a Russian soldier is supposed to trigger an inquiry.

According to Sergey Krivenko, a member of the presidential human rights council, the Russian government could exploit this decree to intimidate activists, journalists, or relatives. The decree refers specifically to defense ministry information, but the Russian government could apply it more broadly. The opposition believes that by denying that Russian soldiers are in Ukraine, the Russian military is denying families death benefits and other awards as well as denying soldiers’ disability payments. Lev Schlossberg informed Russian blogger Oleg Kashin that the government told families of paratroopers to keep quiet and threatened them with a loss of state welfare if they spoke out. If a soldier dies in action, his family is entitled to a compensation payment of USD 40,785, an insurance payment of USD 27,190, and a monthly stipend. If a soldier dies in a conflict officially recognized as a Russian war, the family is entitled to additional benefits that can include a new apartment. Schlossberg, however, maintains that the families of those killed in Ukraine are only receiving benefits if they keep quiet. 

After Soldiers’ Mothers went public with information it received about Russian forces in Ukraine, the Russian government declared the organization – specifically its St. Petersburg chapter – a “foreign agent,” a label often used by the Russian government to silence critics. This occurred after the organization asked Russian investigators to look into allegations of soldiers dying in Ukraine.

The information is easy to suppress because most Russians get their news from state TV. These channels portray the Kievan government as a neo-fascist junta that wants to slaughter all ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Through state media, the Russian government spreads rumors of a “fifth column” operating within the country that seeks to implement a Maidan-style revolution inside Russia. Therefore, any individual or entity that speaks out against the war is portrayed as being part of this conspiracy. Families fear such labels and are therefore reluctant to speak out.

The Russian government destroys the reputations of those who speak out on TV, and has created an environment that encourages violence and intimidation toward critics. The Andrianov family experienced such intimidation tactics from the Russian government. When Corporal Andrianov’s brother reportedly “raised hell” with the 106th Guards Airborne Division over how long it took the paratrooper’s body to reach the family, one officer told him to “quit calling” and promised him USD 1,850. Natasha Andiranova fears to speak out and so do her neighbors. She admits that she could have paid bribes to keep her son out of the military, and also says that despite the fact that she gave information to journalists, she remains afraid that “people might come [to her home]” and she does not know “what they will do.” At the same time she is angry at the government. She wants her son to receive the Hero of Russia medal, but Russia only gives out the award in war and officially there is no war. (However, President Putin did give medals to some paratroopers who fought in Ukraine.) The only representative from the Russian military that attended her son’s funeral was the VDV captain who delivered his body.

Fresh graves have appeared in the Russian city of Pskov near the Estonian border and a five-hour drive from St. Petersburg. Pskov is also a military city and home to the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. It is believed that an entire company of Pskov paratroopers is buried in these graves. Pskov paratroopers deployed to Ukraine in August 2014 stopped calling and writing their families afterward. On 21 August 2014 Ukrainian soldiers captured two Russian armored vehicles near Luhansk. Inside, they found roll-call sheets listing the names of 60 Pskov paratroopers. In August 2014 Anatoliy Vorobey, a Russian blogger based in Tel Aviv, posted a picture online of logbooks from a BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). The logbooks included a listing for a 30-year-old VDV sergeant named Leonid Kichatkin. Then, postings on VKontakte regarding Sergeant Kichatkin’s death only caused the families’ concerns to reemerge.  

This panicked the VDV families living in Pskov. In response, the 76th’s commander addressed the incident calling the Ukrainians’ findings “pure provocation.” He flew to Pskov the next day and assured the families that everyone in the brigade was alive. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and VDV commander Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov claimed that the 76th did not participate in combat. General Shamanov assured the families, “Everyone is alive and well in our assault paratroopers division.” Major General Igor Konashenkov, a Ministry of Defense (MoD) official, said that the information about the paratroopers’ deaths was “a falsehood.” Pro-Kremlin trolls also helped to toe the government line by claiming that the images of the paratroopers’ graves had been photo-shopped. As the military and its legions of trolls denied the stories, 76th Division wreaths rested on the paratroopers’ graves.

One of the individuals looking into the story was Lev Schlossberg. On 26 August 2014 Schlossberg’s paper broke the story of the two servicemen buried on 25 August at the Vybutiy cemetery. Schlossberg also published a transcript of a conversation between servicemen after they left a combat zone in Ukraine. The voices discuss casualties sustained. This produced a major scandal. The paratroopers’ families refused to speak to the press and unidentified men started guarding the graves, blocking anyone who came too close. Between 26 and 27 August seven journalists investigating these stories were threatened or attacked. Schlossberg was among them. He was hospitalized after being beaten by unknown assailants outside his home. “They attacked me from behind, I did not see any of them,” said Schlossberg from his hospital bed on 30 August. “It was a political decision,” he later said, “They attacked me professionally. These weren’t street hooligans, they knew where to hit and how to hit.”

Other journalists decided to examine the graves themselves. Novaya Gazeta’s Nina Petlyanova and Fontanka’s Irina Tumanova traveled to Pskov with Vladimir Romenskiy of TV Dozhd (TV Rain) and Russkaya Planeta’s Ilya Vasyunin. On 26 August they approached the gravesites but were accosted by a group of thugs. They returned the next day with additional reporters from Novaya Gazeta and Fontanka only to be attacked again. Romenskiy and Vasyunin filmed the attack. Hooded thugs, donning tracksuits and balaclavas, tried to break the windows of the reporters’ car and puncture the tires with large screws. One reporter called the police while another tried to get the attackers to back off by promising to leave. They eventually released video footage of their ordeal. In the video’s background, graves adorned with VDV wreaths and Russian Orthodox crucifixes are clearly visible.  

By October 2014 the men guarding the graves had left, but the Pskov families still refused to speak to journalists and the 76th did not respond to any inquires. According to Schlossberg, “The ones who know what happened are terrified to speak.” The Russian government has threatened to tear up soldiers’ contracts and cut off the families’ financial support. Given how much most are making, they could end up on the street. The government threatened the families with a loss of death benefits and pensions if they spoke to the press.

Schlossberg continued to investigate, publishing leaked documents stating that 80 Pskov paratroopers died on 20 August 2014 in Ukraine. Schlossberg believes that the cover-up is widespread and that the number of soldiers killed in Ukraine is hundreds if not more. On 26 August, the same day that Schlossberg published his initial story, Ukraine announced the capture of ten Russian paratroopers on its soil. Kiev released interrogation videos of the soldiers as President Putin met with his counterpart, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in Minsk, Belarus. The captured paratroopers were supposedly from the 331st Airborne Regiment in Kostroma, but their confessions could have easily have been forced. The paratroopers claimed that their commanders misled them, informing them that they would be conducting a training exercise but instead sent them across the border to Ukraine.

The Kremlin actually acknowledged the incident albeit with a media spin. President Putin claimed that the paratroopers were patrolling the border and got lost in Ukraine. The families in Kostroma, meanwhile, were outraged. According to a Kostroma mother, most families only found out about the incident because of the Internet. The families gathered outside the division headquarters demanding that the military bring their sons home. Moscow eventually exchanged 63 Ukrainian soldiers for the ten paratroopers.

On 16 September 2014 Schlossberg sent a deputies’ inquiry to the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation. He asked questions about the fate of the 76th servicemen. The prosecutor’s office released the cases of 12 paratroopers’ burials and deaths: Aleksandr Baranov, Sergey Volkov, Dmitriy Ganin, Vasiliy Gerasimchuk, Aleksey Karpenko, Tleuzham Konibayev, Leonid Kichatkin, Anton Korolenko, Aleksandr Kulikov, Maksim Mezentsev, Aleksandr Osipov, and Ivan Sokol. The office did not, however, reveal the circumstances of the paratroopers’ deaths. It reported that the servicemen died outside of places of permanent deployment. It also found no legal violations. The office assured the families that they would receive social benefits. All other information was classified a state secret and the office was not able to answer Schlossberg’s inquires. No one has yet found a list of all 80 names of the dead paratroopers from the 76th Division’s 1st Parachute Company.

Schlossberg is not the only one whose inquiries have ended in failure. For example, Dmitriy Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker, requested an inquiry into the deaths of at least three Russian soldiers – including some based in Pskov – killed in Ukraine. The MoD refused to comment, and dismissed Gudkov’s assertions as “rumors” spread by the Kiev junta. On 27 January 2015 opposition figure Boris Nemtsov addressed an official inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation. He demanded an investigation into the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The government never answered his inquiries and Nemtsov was assassinated a month later.

“Hell No, We Won’t Go!”

Increasing numbers of Russian youths are dodging the draft in order to avoid service in eastern Ukraine. Soldiers’ Mothers is receiving an increase in the number of calls from families with sons who have just turned 18. Officially, conscripts cannot be sent to war, though they may be forced to sign contracts once their service is over in order to discourage draft dodging. Soldiers’ Mothers has appealed to both the Russian prosecutor’s office and the MoD on the subject of forcing soldiers to sign contracts to which they received no response.

Draft dodging was commonplace in Soviet Russia during both world wars and especially during the Soviet-Afghan War. In post-Soviet Russia draft dodging retained its popularity during both Chechen wars. Twice a year, Russia drafts 150,000 to 200,000 men  between the ages of 18 and 27 to serve for one year. The exact figures on how many Russians dodge the draft are difficult to obtain. The Russian government keeps the exact figures carefully hidden to avoid embarrassment. Some estimates indicate that up to 50 percent of conscripts draft dodge. According to a 2013 General Staff report, 244,000 men avoided conscription in 2012. 8,794 did not show up to the recruiting center while 235,800 avoided the draft via other means. Those who dodge the draft in Russia can receive a prison sentence of up to two years. 30,000 conscripts are charged and 1,000 are convicted each year.

Conscripts have developed rather ingenious ways to avoid the draft. One, who identified himself as “Dmitriy,” paid USD 2,000 to be considered mentally ill. In addition to paying bribes, many conscripts will forge their birth certificates. Some will get their doctor to give them a medical exemption. This can cost up to USD 100,000 which is too much for most.

In Russia there are few incentives to join the military as most conscripts earn up to USD 10 each month. Many refuse to join because they fear poor conditions and brutal hazing. In fact, hazing is the primary reason outside of war why many Russians try to avoid conscription. Second-year conscripts, being senior to first-year conscripts, relentlessly haze the latter. Conscript deaths in 2014 included hundreds of suicides. To combat conscription evasion, the Russian military has reduced the service limit for conscripts from 18 months to 12 months.

Stories are already starting to leak out of Ukraine from Russian soldiers who are dissatisfied with their service. One, Mikhail Laptev, lost his leg to a Ukrainian tank. Laptev was a former Russian soldier who fought for the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic (Luhanska Narodna Respublika; LPR or LNR). Regarding the fighting in Ukraine Laptev said, “It’s very scary over there. For those who want to go there to join, I don’t recommend it. It’s very scary.”   

The opinions of those who actually fought in Ukraine vary. In one instance, Russian soldiers chose to quit rather than continue fighting in Donbas. One soldier, from Moscow and serving in Russia’s elite Kantemirovskaya tank division, was told that he was going on exercises in southern Russia. Instead he ended up in eastern Ukraine. His lieutenant colonel informed him and his comrades when they crossed the border that they would be sent to prison if they disobeyed orders. Some of the soldiers did refuse to follow orders, and the lieutenant colonel informed them that the government was pursuing criminal charges against them. In reality, the men just quit.

When asked if he would return to Ukraine voluntarily to fight, the former tank soldier responded, “No, what for? That’s not our war. If our troops were there officially it would be a different story.” The soldier deployed to Ukraine in the summer of 2014 and then returned in September 2014 during the Minsk I ceasefire. In combat he operated a T-72B3 tank. The men were told that they would get a daily allowance for fighting along with medals. They never received either. Fourteen men eventually quit the division.

The names of nine soldiers who quit were mentioned in an exchange of letters between Viktor Miskovets, a human resources department head in Russia’s Western Military District, and Melnikova of Soldiers’ Mothers. The rights group petitioned Miskovets to accept the soldiers’ resignations, though one soldier maintained that the military was unwilling to do this. The letters did not mention service in Ukraine. The soldiers left service on 12 December 2014. The MoD refused to comment on the incident, and three of the soldiers who quit refused to talk about Ukraine.

Another soldier who quit was a 21-year-old member of a Grad missile unit. His unit took up position 2 km from the Russo-Ukrainian border near Rostov in summer 2014. The mission appeared to be an exercise though the men were told to treat it as real combat. At one point, the unit was ordered to fire at a target 17 km away and possibly in Ukraine. He recalled, “I was hoping that I did not aim at any people. Or at least that I missed the target.” Fellow soldiers told him that another battery from his unit crossed the border and spent ten days in Ukraine. “I did not understand who was fighting and what for, and the point of it,” he said.

The military unexpectedly summoned the soldier back to his unit in January 2015, and he moved to another artillery battery for exercises in Rostov. This, he believed, was also related to the Donbas conflict. He and four other soldiers quit after submitting the necessary paperwork in March 2015. There are many reports of the morale of Russian soldiers falling. Most Russian soldiers who fought in Ukraine in 2014 – volunteers or otherwise – came from Central Russia, the North Caucasus, and the Volga region. Some came from Siberia. Eventually, the Russian troops from regions closer to Ukraine became more reluctant to fight. According to Dorjo Dugarov, a politician from the Siberian Buryatiya region, a Siberian soldier who returned from Ukraine told him that “people from the western part [of Russia] didn’t want to go. Their morale has fallen.”

According to Lev Schlossberg, “Many soldiers are tearing up their contracts…Many were ready to fight in Chechnya because it was seen as a fight for Russian territory, plus it was an open war. This is a secret war, and it’s not clear who is fighting who. Soldiers think that if they are good to serve the government, the government should only serve them…The army is very resistive right now.” Schlossberg also reported that the hidden funerals “really pissed off” other Pskov soldiers who think that the services should be recognized.

Reports indicate that the Russian government has employed rather brutal methods to keep its troops’ morale high. The Russian MVD’s (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del; Ministry of Internal Affairs) Dzerzhinskiy Division has units operating in Donbas serving as “barrier squads,” punitive action, anti-retreat troops. The division bears the name of Felix Dzerzhinskiy, the Polish-born head of Vladimir Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka. The troops operate behind the lines of regular Russian troops and the rebels. Reports indicate that they are present in both the northern part of rebel-controlled Debaltseve and near Mariupol in the south. There have been at least five confirmed occasions of them taking action against Russian regulars. They are also reportedly used against Russian rebels. Their deployment highlights the problems that Russia has with the morale of both its troops and the rebels.

Other Russian veterans of the Ukraine conflict are less disillusioned. Dorji Batomunkuev, a tank operator who received grievous burns fighting in Donbas, expressed no regrets for his role in the conflict. He said, “It is pointless to have regrets. I don’t bear any grievances because I know that I fought for a good cause. I went with a feeling not of duty, but of justice. I saw how [the Ukrainians] kill people. They do whatever the hell they like.” He was told by his superiors that there were Polish and Chechen mercenaries in Ukraine killing civilians, though he never saw any himself.

Batomunkuev maintained that he had some concern as to whether or not there were any injury payouts given to his family. However, he also stated that he was done with military service. He instead wants to go to the Sensation dance event in St. Petersburg, an annual event which features the best DJs and in which all attendants wear white. Nevertheless, he harbors no ill feelings toward the Russian government or President Putin. “I don’t really have anything against [Putin].” Batomunkuev said. “He’s a very interesting person, of course, and crafty: he’s sending troops, but not sending them. ‘There are no troops there,’ he tells the world. But then he says to us ‘Jump to it.’” Russia did agree to pay for his treatment, and his mother got in touch with his unit after much persistence.      

Though many remain quiet in public about Russia involvement in Donbas and the way it treats its soldiers who die there, some people are not so shy about expressing themselves in private. Following his death, a friend posted a message on Corporal Sergey Andrianov’s social media page which read, “Rest in peace within this earth, brother. Cursed be the one who sent you to fight on foreign soil.” His mother showed similar sentiments saying, “What did they die for? And why are their deaths not being acknowledged?”

Same Song and Dance

In August 2015 the Russian military generated an ad hoc formation composed of 20 contract soldiers from various units and deployed them to Novorossiysk, a military port in southwestern Russia located in the country’s Eastern Military District. One of the soldiers, identifying himself only as “Aleksey,” recalled, “Our regiment has lots of companies, and we were told they had picked out the best 20 fighters.” In cryptic language, the documents given to the contractors (used in this sense to refer to Russian soldiers serving under contract as opposed to compulsion) by their commanders made no mention of where they would deploy to from Novorossiysk and referred to the deployment merely as “an assignment.” There was also no date on the documents indicating when they would return.

In transit to Novorossiysk, most of the contractors believed their assignment would be a covert insertion into Donbas. This appeared to be the case upon their arrival. Normally, it takes weeks for the Russian military to register weapons for its personnel, but machine guns were readily available for the soldiers when they reached their destination. Other reports indicated that the soldiers removed identification plates from their vehicles. It seemed like a textbook covert Russian military deployment to eastern Ukraine. However, there were some inconsistencies with this narrative in both the soldiers’ documents and their commanders’ statements. Even Aleksey admitted that “[it] sounded strange from the beginning.”

The contractors’ ultimate destination was described only as a country with a “hotter climate” than Russia, and they received warnings about venomous snakes. They were also told not to leave base during the deployment. On 16 September, the day before their scheduled departure, the soldiers learned of their final destination: Syria. Even then, no official documents listed Syria as the destination.  According to Aleksey, almost all of them were “unhappy and not prepared to go.” He added, “We do not want to go to Syria, we do not want to die there.”

The soldiers took their contracts to the local military prosecutor’s office hoping to have them terminated. The contractors also petitioned the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. Council member Sergey Krivenko affirmed that only a written order, which the soldiers did not receive, had legitimacy in the Russian armed forces. Also, according to the Russian constitution, any soldier can demand status for service. Nevertheless, military prosecutors not only rejected the soldiers’ claims that the Syria deployment was a violation of their rights, but turned them over to the FSB for interrogation. Each of the soldiers could face state treason charges which carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

The contractors’ plight attracted the attention of Russian human rights activists. Among them was Valentina Melnikova of Soldiers’ Mothers. Explaining the soldiers’ situation she stated, “All the soldiers are asking for was a clear official order, so their widows would be paid compensations if they get killed abroad. Soldiers have a right to demand proper paperwork, they should always do that before they depart, otherwise their families would not receive a ruble.” The contractors’ legal counsel is Ivan Pavlov, a member of the Komanda-29 group founded last year. The organization’s name refers to the Russian constitution’s 29th article which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech.”

Pavlov believes that the Russian armed forces have treated their soldiers as “cannon fodder”. He stated, “[The soldiers] must follow orders, of course, but any order must be clear and legal so that they could make sure for themselves if the war is theirs or not.” This was not the Kremlin’s policy with regard to troops deploying covertly to Donbas and it appears the same is now true regarding its soldiers deploying to yet another politically sensitive conflict.

Pavlov is fighting an uphill battle. In less than six months, he has already defended four Russians charged with state treason, a trend he refers to as “a real wave.” The increase in treason charges is because of a foreign agent law signed by President Putin in 2012. Given the precedents set by previous cases, it is highly likely that these soldiers could face treason charges. For example, Gennadiy Kravtsov, one of Pavlov’s clients and a former intelligence radio engineer, received a 14-year prison sentence for merely sending his resume to a Swedish company.

Nevertheless, Pavlov remains confident. He claims that “the noise that the soldiers raised has helped them so far, all of them have been sent back to their original bases in the Ural Mountains.” However, he warned that “if authorities decide to prosecute the soldiers with treason, we are going to make public the soldiers’ names and release more details about how army commanders kept their soldiers in the dark.” A grassroots movement orchestrated by defiant soldiers and human rights activists could very well bring public attention to the covert insertion and intimidation tactics that the Kremlin applies to its soldiers serving in Donbas and now Syria, generating significant domestic pushback against Russian involvement in these conflicts.     

 Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons