LIVE UPDATES: Relatives have confirmed that Vadim Kostenko, a contract serviceman in the Russian Air Force, was killed on October 24 while on duty in Syria.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
Russian jets have reportedly struck rebel-held positions in the south of Syria for the first time since the air campaign began on September 30.
The Iranian, pro-government Fars News Agency reported this afternoon that Russian aircraft had bombed three strategically important, rebel-held hilltop positions in the Daraa province, south-west of Damascus, near the Golan Heights.
According to Fars, the targets struck were “terrorist positions and bunkers” on Tell Antar, Tell al-Allaqiyyah and Tell al-Harra:
The pro-opposition Qasioun news agency published video purportedly showing an air strike on Tell Antar today:
The hills are key to the southern front, which saw heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups, and attacking regime, IRGC and Hezbollah forces earlier this year.
Notably, Tell al-Harra was previously home to a joint regime-Russian intelligence base, Centre S, which was captured by rebels in October last year.
— Pierre Vaux
Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency reports that the Ministry of Defence has acknowledged the death of a Russian serviceman at the Hmeemeem airbase in Latakia, Syria.
As we reported earlier, friends and relatives have confirmed the death of Vadim Kostenko, a serviceman in the 960th Close Air Support Regiment, on October 24.
The MOD claims that the serviceman, who they have not named, killed themselves during a break after duty on the airbase.
The Interpreter translates:
The Ministry stressed that, according to preliminary data received, including analysis of SMS messages on the contract serviceman’s phone, the cause of his death was a breakdown in his personal relationship with a girl.
A close relative of Kostenko’s told Russia’s RBK news agency that the family had first been told by the military that Vadim had hanged himself, however staff at the military unit he served in subsequently told them merely that his body had been found and did not specify any details.
One unnamed friend of Kostenko’s told investigative blogger Ruslan Leviev that nine other servicemen had in fact died in the same incident at the base, however no corresponding reports have yet to emerge.
As Leviev noted, there were unconfirmed reports of smoke rising from the Hmeemeem air base on the night before Kostenko died:
Certainly Syrian rebel groups claim to have attacked the air base with multiple-launch rocket systems since the air offensive began.
In this video, uploaded on October 3, Ahrar al-Sham fighters fire missiles towards, they claim, the airbase in the Latakia province:
Vadim’s parents, Svetlana and Aleksandr, spoke to Reuters today by phone. They were emphatic that they did not believe the suicide story put forth by the MOD:
“I will never believe this version (suicide),” said Svetlana, who was wearing a black head scarf. She said she had spoken to Vadim as recently as Saturday, the day he died.
“We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. (On Saturday) he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed,” she said.
Alexander, Vadim’s father, speaking in a low voice, agreed: “We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well.”
Aleksandr told Reuters that his 19-year-old son had been deployed by air to Syria on September 14. He only found out that his son was being sent to Syria once he had already landed.
At the Primorsko-Akhtarsk air base, where Kostenko had served, Reuters’ Maria Tsvetkova was told that the funeral will be held on Wednesday.
— Pierre Vaux
Russian investigative bloggers have identified a Russian Air Force serviceman, Vadim Kostenko, as having been killed on duty in Syria.
Ruslan Leviev, posted on his LiveJournal page this morning that he and his group, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), had found messages of mourning on VKontakte pages linking to Kostenko, who, the group found, was a kontraktnik (a contract soldier) in the 960th Close Air Support Regiment.
As Leviev points out, Sukhoi Su-25 attack jets from the 960th have been documented operating in Syria.
Grigoriy Donskikh: Brother, I will not forget you… Vadik Kostenko… We remember… we love…. we mourn…..
Alyona Galkina: Awful, he was just a young man, what happened?
Grigoriy: Alyona, he was killed while fulfilling military duties in Syria…
Grigoriy: Alyona, yes
According to posts by Kostenko’s friends on Odnoklassniki, another social network, he was killed on October 24.
The following replies were posted on October 25:
Angelina Sviridova: What happened with the guy?
Tanya Gerasimenko: He was killed
Angelina: What an awful shame… Under what circumstances?
Tanya: He was killed in Syria
Angelina: Awful! He served there?
Tanya: Of course
Angelina: When did this happen?
After Leviev published the post and received media attention, a “close relative” of Kostenko spoke to Russia’s RBK news agency and confirmed that Vadim had indeed been killed.
According to the relative, the family was initially informed by the military that Vadim had hanged himself, however staff at the base subsequently told them that while his body had been found, but could not give specific details.
Leviev cites a Wall Street Journal report from October 23, in which an unnamed Russian Defence Ministry official is reported to have confirmed that one soldier had died in Syria as a result of “careless handling of weaponry.”
The article was published a day before Vadim’s death, while the MoD source already confirmed the death of a serviceman, which means there is a date mismatch. But an incident due to mishandling ammunition could harm more than one serviceman, so Vadim could have been wounded and died only after the WSJ article was published.
On the other hand, Vadim’s relatives and friends say he was killed. From our experience of investigating the conflict in Ukraine, when a serviceman dies in an accident, the relatives know the cause of the death right away. There is also the “rumor” of 9 other killed soldiers.
As an indirect confirmation of the accident version, it should be noted that in the evening of October 23 local Syrian activists reported thick smoke coming from Hmeimim airbase.
One friend (whose identity has been withheld) of Kostenko’s told Leviev that nine other servicemen had died in the same incident.
The girl told us that officials came to Vadim’s parents from his military unit and confirmed his death. According to her, first they said he hanged himself, then that he was hanged and shot, and finally that he was found dead. She puts the time of his death as 3 PM on Saturday, October 24. She says his body was flown from Syria on a cargo plane.
In any other situation, we would consider this information not enough to publish it yet. But we do know that soon Vadim’s funeral is to take place in Grechanaya Balka, Kalininski district, Krasnodar region. This is why we decided to publish this post for the media to know about the upcoming funeral and be able to verify our information more thoroughly.
— Pierre Vaux