Putin in Syria: The Russian Soldiers Who Don’t Want To Fight For Assad

September 18, 2015
‘Nikolai Filchenkov’, a Russian landing ship, passes the Bosphorus, moving from the Black Sea to the the Aegean on September 10, 2015. The cargo on the deck is covered. Photo by: Yörük Işık

The first instalment of our Putin in Syria blog can be found here.

Russia Repeats Denials Of Troops In Syria Despite Soldiers’ Testimony And Reports From Hama

The state-owned TASS news agency reports that the Russian Defence Ministry has denied that Russian contract soldiers are being deployed to Syria, following the publication of a Gazeta.ru interview with four soldiers who are refusing to go.

“The Eastern military district is surprised by attempts of correspondents of the online media outlet to link the routine activity of the forces to the events in the Middle East,” the ministry’s press service said.

The relocation of military units as part of combat training events comes only within the Eastern military district and in line with the schedule, it said.

Last night, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed Syrian military source, that government forces are now using new weaponry received from Russia.

“The weapons are highly effective and very accurate, and hit targets precisely,” the source said in response to a question about Russian support. “We can say they are all types of weapons, be it air or ground.”

The source said the army had been trained in the use of the weapons in recent months and was now deploying them, declining to give further details other than saying they were “new types.”

Today, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that around 2,400 Russian citizens were fighting with ISIS in Syria. 

The state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reported that Sergei Smirnov, deputy director of the FSB, said (translated by The Interpreter):

“Two thousand, four hundred citizens of the Russian Federation are participating in ‘Islamic State’ criminal gangs, Around three thousand citizens of Central Asian countries, including those in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, are also amongst these ranks.”

While the Kremlin may be using the threat of ISIS to provide cover for their military intervention in Syria, there is evidence that the FSB itself has, in fact, aided Russian citizens in travelling to Syria to wage jihad, as The Interpreter‘s editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, wrote in The Daily Beast last month.

Furthermore, there are recent reports from inside Syria that Russian forces are being applied not against ISIS, but towards areas held by Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of rebel factions, near Hama.

NOW Lebanon reported on September 15 that Russian troops were reported entering the regime-held city. The article cites an All4Syria report claiming that the Equestrian Club in the south-east of Hama has become “a barracks for Russian nationals.”

Al-Souria Net reported that a large convoy had arrived in Hama on September 14. One activist, Suhaib al-Rahmoun told the news site that he had received information on the arrival of a delegation of Russian officers and advisers, along with the Syrian defence minister, Fahd Jassem al-Frejj, at the Al-Nawair Hotel.

Government troops closed roads to the city centre as as “more than ten buses, accompanied by several trucks loaded with equipment” arrived.

As NOW Lebanon notes, the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper described the convoy as a consignment of Russian humanitarian aid.

However the Al-Souria Net article describes reports from opposition observers that indicate a much more serious military operation was taking place in the area.

Ronak Housaine translates for The Interpreter:

Observatory 80 which belongs to the Syrian opposition confirmed in a special report for Al-Souria Net that a large military convoy was spotted going out of Hama military airport at 9 pm on Sunday evening [September 13], which is the fourth convoy to have come out of the airport within 48 hours toward Sahil Alghab.

The observatory pinpointed the arrival of the convoy in the town of Salhab in the western Hama countryside and said that it contained 10 tanks, 20 BMPs, 2 “Ash” rocket launchers , five Grad rocket launchers and 70 vehicles of various types transferring army and foreign militias.

The observatory noted leaked information from regime’s side that a huge (Russian-Iranian) military action is being prepared for, combined with the 4th Armoured Division along with the 11th and 18th (of the Syrian army) with very large numbers of National Defence Force elements, to retrieve some areas of Sahil Al Ghab that the regime lost recently to Jaysh al-Fateh.

It is noteworthy that CNN announced yesterday that American satellites had spotted two amphibious Russian vessels docked on the Syrian coast to land more than 100 Russian Marines along with dozens of other vehicles.

— Pierre Vaux and Ronak Housaine

The Russian Soldiers Who Don’t Want To Go To Syria

Last night, Gazeta.ru published an interview with four Russian contract soldiers who are refusing to be deployed to Syria by ship from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, which has seen regular departures of Russian landing craft, laden with military hardware, in recent days.

The Interpreter has excerpted and translated portions of this revealing piece by Vladimir Dergachev and Yelizaveta Maetnaya.

Alexei N. from one of the military units in the Eastern Military District learned of the Russian leadership’s global plans after the fact, when he had already arrived in Novorossiysk, from where, it has emerged, soldiers and weapons are being transferred by ship. When he realised that he and his comrades from his composite company were going to be sent to Syria any day now, he told Gazeta.ru that they didn’t want to fight and go to the Middle East.

Having discussed it with everyone several times by phone, we met at a café in Novorossiysk…
Four soldiers, all kontraktniki – contract soldiers rather than conscripts – arrived in civilian clothes.
They kept looking around and appeared nervous. The kontraktniki were unsure what they were legally entitled to do or not. They had, with difficulty, got permission to leave the bounds of the base. But one thing that they were absolutely sure of was that they didn’t belong in Syria with weapons in their hands. 

“We don’t want to go to Syria, we don’t want to get killed there,” says Alexei in a brilliant t-shirt. “From the very start of this mission there has been a lot of strangeness and innuendo, the reality began to dawn on us here, in Novorossiysk.”

On August 17 at one of the military bases in the Eastern Military District, commanders gathered together the “most promising,” in their eyes, into a consolidated company of 20 men. In it were several officers and kontraktniki. The most senior assigned was a major. On August 27 they had to go on a mission by train to unload equipment at the Tonnelnaya station outside Novorossiysk and return to the base. 

However from the very start, this seemingly routine assignment went awry. For some reason, no one had put a return date on their travel order. Just before their dispatch to Novorossiysk, a commander gathered everyone in the unit and told them that they may be sent to a “hot country.”

“We had lectures from our commanders at the military base. They told us that our country of arrival would be hot, that it was important for us to bear hygiene in mind, and that under no circumstances were we to take a step outside the territory of the military base. They also explained what to do and how behave in captivity and during interrogtions,” say the soldiers. “They specifically told us that the environment would be unfamiliar to us – snakes, vipers. But they would not say specifically where they were sending us, citing the secret directives of the General Staff.”

While still at the military base, they took documents for registering official service passports from everyone in the consilidated company. All the specific questions about where on earth the group was going were ignored by the commanders. According to the kontraktniki, everything seemed as if the unit’s brass did not know the details of the mission from the beginning themselves.

Furthermore, the consolidated company was issued new weapons like a shot. Such a bureaucratic procedure can take months in the Russian army, but this time all the necessary documents were produced in a matter of hours.
When the troops reached the Rostov region they thought that they were perhaps being sent to fight in Ukraine. However they soon passed through into the Krasnodar region, to the south. 
“We thought that we were going to the Donbass, but it turned out to be Syria,” says Alexei, joylessly…

On September 7 they passed through Tonnelnaya and drove on to Novorossiysk itself. The vehicles were unloaded from the troop train during the day, and were already loaded up at the port by night.

In Novorossiysk the consolidated company was quartered with a battalion on the outskirts of the city. The company was then moved to a site at a VDV [airborne forces] base. Their send-off delayed, the commanders spoke of a large load-out in the port of Novorossiysk. Gazeta.ru was told at the port that, allegedly, personnel from a military base in Buynaksk have already been sent to Syria with armoured personnel carriers. Among those being sent to Syria, there were rumours of upcoming six-month tours in the Middle Eastern country.

“Serial numbers were removed from the vehicles. We were told about the reinforcement of an airbase in Syria,” says another kontraktnik. “One of the people unloading in the port said that we would be on campaign there for four months.”

The sea port in Novorossiysk is a closed area – at the entrance there are barriers, cameras, checkpoints with guards. Military equipment is loaded at night. However local residents confirmed that there have been more soldiers in the city recently, and that military vehicles are frequently arriving on troop trains.

On September 16 a member of the General Staff arrived at the base. Speaking before the personnel, the soldier in civilian clothes and without insignia stated that the order for assignment abroad was a secret. He confirmed that the company was being sent to Latakia in Syria (held by the forces of the ruling regime of Bashar Assad), and did not rule out their paricipation in combat operations. The load-up on the ship was planned for September 17, said the officer.

The member of the General Staff dismissed all objections concerning the legality of the orders and refused to elaborate on the missions plan, again citing its secrecy. He also suggested to the command not to allow the kontraktniki off the base and into the city.

Alexei tells Gazeta.ru that the command didn’t speak about compensation in the even of wounding or death, they also said nothing about insurance. “The commander said that we had one task before us: all of the personnel must return alive,” says the kontraktnik.
The kontraktniki, unhappy about receiving orders without any clear plan, objective or duration, visited the local military prosecutor to ask whether they would subject to criminal liability for failure to comply with their orders. An officer at the prosecutor’s office refused to take statements from them.
That evening, an assistant to the military prosecutor arrived at the base with two investigators. The men were told that they had to comply with any orders they received, even verbal ones. The prosecutor’s assistant “did not want to listen to any counter-arguments about social security.”
When Gazeta.ru approached the Novorossiysk military prosecutor’s office, they received a reaction of disbelief and were told to get the soldiers themselves to write to them formally.
Another problem the soldiers encountered concerned their medical records. While travelling to Novorossiysk, they had their medical cards taken away. When they received them back, they found that they had been marked to say that the soldiers had no complaints about dysentry, enuresis, trauma or other conditions. Furthermore, the records now stated that none of the personnel had any hereditary conditions or drug intolerances. However none of the men had undergone an official military health commission.
Gazeta.ru spoke one of the soldiers’ mother, who said:
“Why are they sending people out there like cattle to the slaughter? We don’t have a war… They haven’t received the necessary vaccinations. Their health status hasn’t been taken into account. Syria is an extreme environment, I’m afraid to even think about how it will impact them! The vehicles they’re taking there are old. Junk. Shoddily patched up. Yes it’s there and no one needs it. Do our people really not care about the most important thing? Just whom to send. Do we really need to do anything? Let Shoigu himself go.”

She says that the Ministry of Defence is beginning to apply pressure to soldiers’ relatives. “They say that if we don’t sign a non-disclosure agreement then we will be deprived of compensation in the event of our sons’ deaths. What can we do?” The woman is very nearly in tears.

“All of this seems similar to how they send the ‘vacationers’ to the Donbass, but my son’s life is more valuable than their compensation or benefits such as a military mortgage.”
The kontraktniki have contacted the Presidential Council on Human Rights (SPCh), which has  in turn approached the Ministry of Defence Sergei Krivenko, a member of the SPCh told Gazeta.ru that the “basic unit of the army charter is written orders.” 
Krivenko said that soldiers must obey orders, but only those that are legal and legitimately filed. The issue regarding medical checks and documents also “raises questions that must be answered,” he said.
Gazeta.ru has yet to receive a response from either the Ministry of Defence or the command of the military unit.

Artur Ramzanov, a retired judicial lieutenant-colonel, told Gazeta.ru that sending Russian troops to Syria was:

“perfectly legal and justified because it is carried out within the framework of an agreement on friendship and cooperation between Russia and Syria (and earlier between the USSR and Syria), signed in 1980. Although this treaty does not provide for direct military assistance, section 6 stipulates how to act ‘in the event of situations threatening the peace or security of one of the parties or presenting a threat to international peace or security…”

According to this agreement, both parties can then coordinate and collaborate to address said threat and restore peace. 
Ramazanov said that soldiers sent to Syria would be entitled to the same benefits and compensation as that received by Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.
As a result of the noise created by the soldiers and their contact with the media, their deployment to Syria, which was due yesterday, has now been suspended. The men are now awaiting official health checks, as are their comrades. Their commanders have yet to issue official, written orders.
The kontraktniki still hold mission orders from August 27 until September 25. “Tactical exercises and cargo escort” is written in the “assignment purpose” section.

According to Gazeta.ru’s reports, there are rumours at the base that FSB specialists will soon install jammers to prevent the leakage of information to the outside world. The kontraktniki, not wanting to go Syria, have written letters of resignation. “Write-write, you’ll go all the same,” they were told at the base.

— Pierre Vaux