First Confirmed Russian Death in Syria + Evidence of Covert Operations since 2012

There have been rumors of Russians killed in Syria since the deployment began in September, but none have been officially confirmed until now. On Saturday, October 24, a 19-year-old Russian contract serviceman named Vadim Alexandrovich Kostenko in the 960th Close Air Support Regiment, unit 75387, was killed while on duty in Syria.

According to the official Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) announcement, Vadim hanged himself at the Hmaymeem airbase (co-located with Bashar al-Assad Latakia airport) after fighting with his girlfriend. His parents do not believe this story – one of several that they were told by military officials.

A photo of Vadim in Russian Air Force uniform posted online two months before his death. (Source: Ruslan Leviev)

A photo of Vadim in Russian Air Force uniform posted online two months before his death. (Source: Ruslan Leviev)

Ruslan Leviev, who has been closely following Russian military activities in Syria on his blog, broke the story of Vadim’s death just before the official MOD announcement. Through posts on Vadim’s profile on vk.com (a popular Russian social media site), Leviev found that the deceased soldier signed up for the contract immediately after finishing his mandatory service in military unit 20926 (834rd Air Force training center, Zernograd, Rostov region) and shortly before Russia began deploying contracted servicemen to Syria. Posts on vk.com suggest that Vadim may have died alongside 9 other Russians, which contradicts the suicide explanation given by the MOD. A day before Vadim’s death, the Wall Street Journal reported that an unnamed Russian ministry official confirmed “the special forces also said that one Russian soldier has died in Syria due to careless handling of weaponry.”

Leviev hypothesized that the soldier could have died a day later from injuries in a weapons handling accident on the 23rd, which could have also killed or injured other Russian soldiers. But the inconsistent stories coming out of the Russian MOD suggest that they may be covering up one or more casualties inflicted by rebel forces.

For live updates on this story check out http://www.interpretermag.com/putin-in-syria-russian-serviceman-confirmed-killed-in-syria/.

While this is the first official deployment of Russian soldiers to Syria in the course of the war, Russians have been in Syria since the beginning, running their naval base in Tartous, performing maintenance on Russian-made helicopters and weapons, advising Syrians on the use of Russian weapons and providing battlefield intelligence, and in several murkier capacities.

Below is a list of some of the previous incidents involving Russians in Syria that suggest a covert operations presence since mid-2012.

  • In mid 2012 reports surfaced that two units of Russian marines were sent to Syria to protect Russian citizens and their naval base.
  • In August 2012, rebels claimed that Russian military officer, Maj. Gen. Vladimir Kojève was killed in Damascus, Syria while serving as an advisor to the Assad regime. Later reports suggest that this may not have been true, but the appearance of his ID card and deployment-related papers in rebel hands strongly suggest that he was in Syria at some point.
  • In May 2013 there were rumors that Russia’s secretive Zaslon special forces were deployed to Syria.
  • A fringe group of Russian “reporters” from ANNA News (Abkhazia News Network) embedded with the Syrian military since at least 2013. The videos posted by the group on its now-suspended Youtube account included heavy pro-Assad propaganda and reinforced a narrative that the regime is fighting al-Qaeda. The ANNA presence in active combat is clear from their videos, which show their reporters riding in tanks as they destroy neighborhoods in the suburbs of Damascus; and images from social media of group members show them armed in full combat gear. In January 2013 an ANNA “correspondent” – a Russian judge and former military intelligence officer named Sergey Aleksandrovich Berezhnoy – was shot in the face during combat. ANNA was formed in mid-2011, indicating that like the Slavonic Corps, its sole purpose may have always been to send Russians to the Syrian frontlines.

    ANNA News footage from Jobar/Zamalka areas of Damascus, 2013.

    ANNA News footage from Jobar/Zamalka areas of Damascus, 2013.

  • In October 2013, rebels from Jaysh al-Islam reported attacking a convoy that included Russian soldiers en route to a frontline near the town of As-Sukhna in the desert area of eastern Homs province. The group claimed to have killed and injured several Russian soldiers and officers during the attack.
  • In late 2013 a group of Russian contractors was identified as being sent to Syria after ISIS claimed to have killed several Russians and published documents taken from their belongings online. Investigations found that a Hong Kong-based company called Slavonic Corps, which had signed a contract with Moran Security Group, had sent the Russian contactors. Slavonic Corps was incorporated in 2012, possibly for the very purpose of sending Russians to Syria. Moran Security is headed by a Reserve Federal Security Service (FSB) officer named Vyacheslav Kalashnikov who had previously made the news for smuggling arms to Nigeria. The contractors apparently believed that they were operating with the approval of the FSB, that they were recruited by Russia, and were sent to guard “key assets” for the Syrian regime in order to free up Syrian forces for active combat; although it appears they may have actually been tasked with a kinetic mission to recapture oil fields in the desert from extremists. Extensive reporting on this has been conducted by Interpreter Mag and Fontanka. After this incident came to light in the press the company was shut down and several of the contractors were arrested upon return to Russia. (Note: ISIS is not the only rebel group to report run-ins with Russian convoys, supporting the validity of these claims. Given the depth of the Russian-Syrian relationship and the deployed contractor’s ties to FSB agents, it is highly unlikely that Damascus would have hired Russians without the direct consent and involvement of the Russian government.)
  • Screenshot from video showing Russian and Syrian intelligence logos at Tel al-Harra facility.

    Screenshot from video showing Russian and Syrian intelligence logos at Tel al-Harra facility.

    In October 2014, rebels in southern Syria captured a critical Syrian military base near Tel al-Harra in Daraa province. The rebels reported that the base housed a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) facility jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency and one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies. They posted evidence online, including a video from the inside of the facility showing Russian writing, Russian intelligence logos, and photos that appear to show Russian officers at the base.

  • In August 2015, rebels from Jaysh al-Islam claimed to have killed a Russian officer in a mortar attack on the Slinfa resort area near Latakia. This claim has not been verified.
  • Since the recent Russian deployment began there have been several unconfirmed reports of Russians killed by the Syrian opposition:
    • Reuters reported that at least three Russians were killed earlier in October by a mortar shell at a post in the Nabi Younes area of Latakia governorate (note that this is right near the Slinfa area where the officer was reportedly killed in August).
    • In mid-September a Ukranian newspaper published photos of Colonel Vladimir Pavlovitch Chalkov, claiming that he was the first Russian officer killed in Syria. He was reportedly hit by a sniper, no location was given.
    • Also in September 2015, reports in Russian media indicated that the bodies of 10 soldiers killed in Syria had arrived in Sebastapol, Crimea.