Putin in Syria: Friends And Family Reject Official Claims That Soldier Committed Suicide In Syria

October 28, 2015
Photo: Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

LIVE UPDATES: Vadim Kostenko, a Russian Air Force serviceman who died in Syria on Saturday, is being buried today. Friends and family insist that the government is lying about his cause of death.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Kommersant Reveals Russians Planned Syrian Air Strikes Under Cover of Exercises; Turkey Leased Ships to Russia Painted Over to Supply War

Russia’s business daily Kommersant has a good round-up of the major events since Russia began airstrikes on September 30, authored by Ivan Safronov and Sergei Goryashko for Kommersant’s Vlast’ [Power] section.

The Interpreter has made a summary and provided some comments and context as well as direct quotes from the article.

A map accompanying the article
shows the areas of strikes and the types of war planes involved, with a
graph showing the intensification of strikes this month.

2015-10-28 19:59:17

The authors call the Syrian operation “the first full-fledged maneuver
since the ‘five-day’ war with Georgia in 2008.” They supply evidence that
planning for these strikes by Russia’s Defense Ministry began long
before President Bashar Al-Assad’s appeal to Russia for assistance and
the meeting of Russia’s Security Council on September 29 where the
decision was announced to launch the strikes. Foreign Minister Lavrov
said that President Vladimir Putin informed President Barack Obama of
the forthcoming strikes during their meeting September 28 at the UN General Assembly,
and Obama replied briefly (in reverse translation), “We supposed as

There was some indication right before this meeting that Russia was contemplating air strikes:

an interview for CBS 60 Minutes
aired September 27, Charlie Rose asked
Putin whether Russia would put ground troops in Syria. He replied:

will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria
or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now.
But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad
and with our partners in other countries.”

Putin also added:

I want you, your audience to finally realise that no one except for
al-Assad’s army is fighting against ISIS or other terrorist
organisations in Syria, no one else is fighting them on Syrian
territory. Minor airstrikes, including those by the United States
aircraft, do not resolve the issue in essence; in fact, they do not
resolve it at all. The work should be conducted on the spot after these
strikes and it should all be strictly coordinated. We need to understand
what strikes are needed, where we need to strike and who will advance
on the ground after these strikes. In Syria, there is no other force
except for al-Assad’s army.

According to information obtained by
Kommersant Vlast’, Russia began its build-up of personnel and materiel
in August and early September when the troop ships Novocherkassk,
Korolev, Saratov, Azov, Tsezar Kunikov and also the freight steamer
Aleksandr Tkachenko all jammed into Novorossisky’s port to load up on armor,
ammunition and fuel. The ships then headed across the Bosphorus to the
Mediterranean Sea. The ships carried air bombs and air-to-surface
missiles “sufficient for only one assignment — to relocate the air
force.” This was relatively easy to do under cover of the Center 2015
involving more than 150 planes, say the authors (translation by The Interpreter):

Under such cover,
Russian Su-30SM fighters, Su-34 and Su-24M frontline bombers, Su-25 attack planes flew from the air fields of Krymsk and Mozdok and also,
bypassing the Caspian Sea (or the air space over Azerbaijan) and also
Iran and Iraq, reached Syria. By September 30, a full-fledged mixed
aviation group with more than 50 vehicles was created at the Hmeemeem air
base: Mi-8 and Mi-24P helicopters were added to the planes by that
time, and continue to strike Syrian provinces where ISIS and Al Nusra
fighters are located.

According to the Defense Ministry, from
September 30-October 22, Russian pilots performed 934 combat flights
from Hmeemeem (of which more than 100 were at night) and destroyed no
less than 819 targets. Most of the strikes were carried out with
high-precision X-29L air-surface class missiles, and correctable KAB500S
air bombs, with a maximum deviation from the target, according to the
soldiers themselves, of no more than 5 meters.

According to a source in
the defense industry, in connection with the growing demand of the
military for deliveries of armaments due to the operation in Syria,
workers from the Tactical Missile Armament corporation were forced to
move to three shifts.

The Russian Navy made an emergency acquisition of
eight transport ships from Turkish ship-owners in order to deliver this
freight to Tartus, which were quickly incorporated into the list of
auxiliary ships by assigning them military status: the large troop ships
could not cope alone with such a heavy load.

The Interpreter notes that one watcher of ships in the Bosphorus saw a hasty paint job on a ship under a Russian flag passing by at the time.

from the air component, on October 7, four ships from Russia’s Caspian
fleet (the small missile ships Uglich, Grad Sviyazhsk, Velikiy Ustyug
and the sentry ship Dagestan) made 26 Kalibr-NK 34M14 cruise-missile
strikes on 11 ground targets, which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
reported personally to the president that same day. This case stands
apart: on October 5-6, [Russian] reconnaissance had discovered militant
facilities, and upon decision of the Defense Ministry leadership, it was
decided to destroy them immediately. The military managed within an
extremely short period to get permission for the launch from Iran,
through whose air space the rocket’s trajectory would run.

from updated information from the RF Defense Ministry, the main strikes
of the Russian armed forces were delivered primarily on the provinces
of Aleppo, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Latakia, Palmyia, Damascus and
Hama. According to Russian reconnaissance data, it was here that the
majority of the militants’ command centers were concentrated (including
fortified areas and mortar outlets) arms stocks and training camps.

airstrikes immediately led to criticism from Syrian human rights
activists and Western leaders that they were killing civilians, and
striking rebel groups opposed to Assad, not ISIS. The Russian military
denied this. Kommersant Vlast’ spoke to a source within the General Staff
who said that the choice of targets was made not only on the basis of
Russia data, using virtually 24-hour electronic monitoring from the
Persona No. 2 spy satellite and Orlan-10 drones, but information from
allies in the operation — Iran, Iraq and Syria.

These countries formed
an information center to coordinate their actions located in
Baghdad; its chief purpose is to collect, sort, aggregate and analyze
ongoing information about the situation in the region. Military officers
from the four countries staff the center, rotating out every three
months. The Russian team is currently commanded by Gen. Sergei Kuralenko
of the 6th Field Army.

Gen. Andrei Kartapolov,  chief of the Main Operations Directorate of
the Russian General Staff, who is directing the operation in Syria, told
Kommersant Vlast’ that before each strike, a
special log is created citing computer modeling of the previous
strikes, and only after this is a final decision made to hit a target (translation by The Interpreter):

strike only the targets of internationally recognized terrorist groups.
Our plans do not fly in the southern regions of Syria, where, according
to our information, the formations of the Free Syrian Army are located.”

military attache told Kommersant Vlast’ that it was difficult
cooperate with the US, because its goal was removal of Assad, not just
battling ISIS. He said only Russia is “absolutely legal” in making its
airstrikes because it has the request from Assad; the US, France and
Turkey are “making strikes without any legal basis.” However, this
source believed progress was being made; the US and Russia agreed to
coordinate information for the sake of flight safety, and “Russia
continues to count on receiving data from the American military, citing
coordinates and outlining the location of both the  militants and
civilian regions.” The US has refused, and on October 22, a Pentagon spokesman accused the Kremlin of using cluster bombs in areas of the civilian population in Syria.

There have been some “international scandals”
along the way, say the authors — a Russian Su-24M violated Turkish
airspace on October 3, supposedly due to “poor flight conditions,”
causing President Recep Erdogan to threaten to stop making gas purchases
from Russia. (Russian-Turkish relations further deteriorated when
Turkey shot down an apparent Russian drone over Turkish territory and
threatened to do the same with an intrusive plane, and now Ankara is
taking Gazprom to court
as we reported.)

From the outset, Putin
has said no ground forces would be involved. He said it in the interview
with Charlie Rose; the point was reiterated by the speaker of the
Russian parliament. But rumors persist of a presence of troops involved
in combat; Novaya Gazeta reported a rumor that 
two dozen fighters from the Sever (Northern) Battalion of the Chechen
Interior Ministry troops were dismissed to enable them to go to Syria;
Zaur Dadayev, a former member of this unit and the chief suspect in the
murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, appealed to Putin to release
him to enable him to and fight ISIS in Syria.

Kommersant Vlast’ spoke to a source in the General Staff who
said the Russian military contingent in Syria consists of contract soldiers from
the 810th Separate Marine Brigade out of Sevastopol and the 7th Guards
Mountain Division of the Airborne Division from Rayevskaya, that
their only assignment is to guard Russian facilities, and they are not
engaged in combat. The confirmation of a report of a soldier killed in
has led to speculation that the Russians are covering up their
combat role in Syria, although the wounds of the soldier suggest that he
could have been a victim of hazing.

authors point out that for the first time in its modern history, Russia
is following the doctrine of the Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet, an aerial
strategist who in 1921 published a book The Command of the Air, in which
he said the air force should take the leading role in a war, and
striking the enemy’s key targets can lead to victory. The Russian armed
forces until now have always used a Soviet model relying on their ground
troops, with strike forces, corps and battalions) and deployed various
types of forces in a war.

Aleksandr Perendzhiyev, an expert of
the Association of Military Political Analysts said Russia’s air force has
faced a number of problems in the Syrian operation: lack of coordination
with the Western coalition, anger from the local population over some
of the airstrikes, and the weakness of Assad’s army.

There are some
that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are supporting Assad’s
forces, although Kommersant Vlast’ says they have no information that
they have been in battles. The first major offensive was on October 8,
where for the first time, Syria’s 4th Army Assault Corps took part,
which had hitherto not taken part in combat.

the Kremlin admits that they will not achieve success without a ground
operation. As Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration,
said during the Valdai conference this year:

“As much as you bomb,
you will never achieve success, we understood that from the outset and
planned these actions only in coordination with the Syrian Armed Forces.”

Sivkov, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and
Artillery Sciences believes the Russian air force is working at its
highest efficiency and the pilots are highly trained, but Assad’s army is
not making advances:

“Our forces in Syria are insufficient for
conducting military operations, and Assad’s forces don’t have enough
ammunition or specialists to lead an offensive quickly.”

came to meet Putin last week. He was whisked out of the Chkalov air base
from Latakia on board an Il-62M from the Russian Defense Ministry on
October 20th, and returned home on the 21st. Putin said there were
“serious positive results” — in his speech in Valdai he said that Assad
had agreed
to hold talks with “those opposition forces prepared for

Ivanov added during Valdai that Putin and Assad discussed
coordination of Russia’s air force with Syria’s ground troops and
concluded that a ground operation against ISIS, Al Nusra and other
terrorist groups should be made by the Syrian Army and the Kurdish
fighters. No one could say how long this might take.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Unmarked Russian Military Convoy Photographed In Latakia

Photos circulated today on Twitter show what appears to be unmarked Russian military hardware on the move in Syria.

The photos were posted on Twitter at 5:56 GMT and were purportedly taken yesterday in al-Shilfatiyah, Latakia:


The equipment seen here is rather interesting

The convoy contained three R-166-0,5 radio communications vehicles:




Note that the last two vehicles above have a white square painted on in place of any unit markings or numbers. This was a common practice of the Russian army during their operations in eastern Ukraine.

None of the other vehicles in the convoy had any identification marks: 



The truck towing what appears to be a 2A65 152 mm howitzer below is a dedicated artillery tractor variant of the Kamaz-6350.


This variant only entered service with the Russian army in 2011.  

Infantry are travelling with the convoy, but we cannot say whether they are Russian or Syrian soldiers:


— Pierre Vaux

Friends And Family Reject Official Claims That Soldier Committed Suicide In Syria

Friends and family of Vadim Kostenko, a Russian Air Force serviceman who died at the Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad airbase in Syria on October 24, have told Novaya Gazeta that they do not believe that he hanged himself as the Ministry of Defence claims.


One man, introducing himself as Vadim’s uncle, told the paper’s correspondent Yevgeny Titov that the dead 19-year-old’s body showed signs of a rather more violent death.

“He had a broken jaw, the back of his head is cracked, his neck is broken and he has been cut open all the way down to his navel.”

It is possible to conceive that the neck, jaw and head injuries could have resulted from a drop-hanging, especially if Kostenko’s body had hit the floor after the rope gave way. The long incision in his torso may also be the result of an autopsy.

However Vadim’s family and neighbours in the village of Grechnaya Balka, where his body has been brought by the military, are convinced otherwise.

One villager, Tatyana, who says she knew Kostenko well, told Titov that the government’s claims were “all lies.”

“He was a very happy person, calm, well-brought-up, from a good family.”

One possibility of course is that Kostenko fell victim to the infamous culture of dedovshchina – brutal hazing within the military. In 2005, for example, the Russian military admitted that 16 soldiers had been killed during hazing and another 276 had committed suicide in connection with abuse

According to some of the villagers, Vadim had phoned his parents at 16:00 the same day he died, giving no indication of his intentions. However Titov was unable to verify these claims.

Villagers have gathered today ahead of Kostenko’s funeral:


— Pierre Vaux