Fellow Russian Servicemen Report Death of 6th Russian Soldier in Syria; Widow Denies

March 23, 2016
Sergei Chupov (center, top row), a soldier in the Russian Interior Ministry's Internal Troops, reported as killed in Syria. His widow and the Kremlin denies it. Photo via CIT

LIVE UPDATES: Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) reports that fellow servicemen confirmed the death of a 6th Russian soldier in Syria, but his widow denies he was killed there and the Kremlin won’t confirm.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

Recent Analysis and Translations:

Getting The News From Chechnya – The Crackdown On Free Press You May Have Missed
Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History
Why the World Should Care About the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
How Boris Nemtsov Was Murdered: Investigation by Novaya Gazeta
How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza


CIT Reports 6th Russian Soldier’s Death in Syria But Widow, Army and Kremlin Deny

Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian bloggers and military experts analyzing the wars in Ukraine and Syria, have reported that in February 2016, a Russian soldier who had been killed in battle in Syria was buried in Russia.

He was Sergei Chupov, a soldier of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops (VV MVD) who had served in the Soviet war in Afghanistan and two wars in Chechnya with the rank of Major although his role in Russia’s military intervention in Syria was not clear. Both Chupov’s widow and the Kremlin have denied that he was in Syria.

On March 17, President Vladimir Putin confirmed 4 combat deaths in Syria during an awards ceremony and a fifth had been confirmed earlier, although claimed a suicide.

RBC has attempted to check the story of Chupov’s death in Syria. CIT has previously reported cases of deaths of Russian soldiers that the Kremlin initially denied but recently confirmed once the troop withdrawal began.
On March 18 at the Novoderevensky Cemetery in Balashikh District of the Moscow Region, relatives and fellow servicemen gathered to pay their respects to Chupov on the 40th day after his death, according to the Russian Orthodox custom. The mourners refused to talk to an RBC reporter. Chupov’s widow now runs her late husband’s page on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network, and calls on readers there “not to talk to journalists” who are spouting “provocations” and “dirty reports.”
Chupov’s gravestone has his date of death as February 8, as CIT discovered and RBC confirmed. A graveside photo shows him in an Interior Ministry uniform with the rank of Major. RBC found one of his war buddies with whom he had served in Chechnya, who said that a certain “Col. Aleksei Kosmachev” had invited him to the funeral, and had told him that he was killed in Syria by shell fire; the colonel said he was in the Russian group of forces in Syria.
But another source who helped organize Chupov’s funeral said his relatives had told a different story. They said he died not far from the Ukrainian border, where he had reportedly helped some friends with a move. No more details were offered.

In CIT’s report (in English and Russian), there are a number of references to posts on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, the Russian version of Classmates, where various users state that Chopov died in Syria.

Three fellow soldiers comment on his death: Radik Belov, from the 101st Special Brigade of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops (VV MVD) who was under Chupov’s command in 1995 in the first Chechen war; Aleksandr Voronichev, who knew Chupov from the late 1980s when they both served in the 56th Brigade in Afghanistan, and Sergei Saprykin, an acting spetsnaz officer in the VV MVD. All three said he died in Syria; Saprykin added the detail that it was from a shrapnel wound. None of them would speak to reporters.

Svetlana Chupova, Sergei’s widow, said her husband had indeed died, but claimed RBC “had incorrect information regarding the place where he died.” She recommended going to the Interior Ministry with further questions as she did not wish to comment further. Col. Kosmachev refused to comment.
Disclosure of details of deaths of Russian soldiers during military operations abroad, which are deemed state secrets, is punishable by imprisonment. This law, passed in May 2015 and enforced both officially through the judicial system with court cases and unofficially with threats, harassment and beatings by unidentified government loyalists or agents, has made it very hard for journalists to persist with these cases. The Interior Ministry had no comment for RBC, nor did the Defense Ministry or the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office, nor the Chief Military Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee. 
As for the office of Dmitry Peskov, presidential administration spokesman, the press secretary told RBC, “We have not been briefed.” Later, according to a TASS report, Peskov told reporters, “I haven’t heard anything about this. I don’t know what sort of organization this is that is reporting it, and what it is based on,” regarding CIT.

RBC researched Chupov’s background. He was born January 6, 1965 which would make him 51 years old at the time of his death and account for how he could serve in both the Afghan war, two Chechen wars, and then the war in Syria. He was in the 56th Separate Guard Paratroopers Brigade in Afghanistan and saw combat there; after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan he served in the VV MVD (unit No. 3670 in Alma-Ata Region).

In the mid 1990s, he went to the 101st Special Operations Brigade of the VV MVD based in Stavropol in what is now Russian-occupied Crimea. From there, he served in two wars in Chechnya. His brigade was disbanded in 2000, but at the base of one of the battalions, the 46th Separate Operations Brigade of the VV MVD was created. The 46th is considered one of the largest in the VV MVD and includes fighting units made up on the principle of ethnic affiliation; it is here that the Sever and Yug (North and South) Chechen battalions are located. The Sever Battalion’s deputy commander Zaur Dadayev is the chief suspect in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; another suspect was also a member, and the commander and his driver, also suspected, have fled Russia. 
Chupov’s service in the 46th was confirmed by two fellow servicemen. There are no wreaths from the Ministry of Defense on his grave, but that makes sense as he served in the Interior Ministry’s troops, not the army. There are wreaths from the 346th and 352th Separate Reconnaissance Battalions which are part of the 46th Brigade. That speaks to Chupov’s possible role as a scout; one of the social media comments found by CIT when a friend learned about his death was “such is the lot of us scouts.”

One source said that Chupov left service in the 101st and 46th brigades and went on a military pension in the mid-2000s. But as Valentina Melnikova, the executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers explained to RBC, nothing prevents a person who has left service in the Internal Troops from later signing a contract and returning to service.

Sergei Krivenko, another army expert at the civic group Citizen and Army said that the only barrier to such contract service would be the state of one’s health. If he was in good health, despite his age, he could sign on with the Defense Ministry or the Interior Ministry which in recent years make up their troops increasingly on the basis of contracts.

Ruslan Leviev, the coordinator of CIT, suggested that Chupov may have been an instructor in Syria who did not take part in combat. But a former fellow serviceman told RBK that he was performing the job of “negotiator” although he couldn’t explain what that job description meant.
Military expert Pavel Felgengauer told RBC that Chupov’s experience of war in the Caucasus would be valuable in Syria. Perhaps he was deployed to contact diverse groups of fighters in the Syrian opposition. He could have also been in Syria as a mercenary.
Another military expert, Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis said he could not explain what a “negotiator” would be doing in Syria, but there were Russian troops in Syria guarding facilities and Chupov could have also been an instructor.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick