Russian News Site RBC Investigates Russian Troop Units Deployed in Ukraine

October 7, 2014
President Vladimir Putin lights candles 10 September 2014 for "those who gave their lives defending people in Novorossiya." Photo by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Repeatedly through Russia’s war against Ukraine, there have been references in various blogs and news media to lists of Russian military units supposedly deployed in Ukraine.

Most of these lists can be traced back to a single Georgian activist who participated in the Maidan demonstrations named Irakly Komaxidze who made a Facebook post in Russian on 26 August with a list of the units and updated it with some additions 31 August. For an English translation of the list, see Burko News.

This list has been copied – usually without attribution – in numerous formats, usually verbatim, but often without the first entry in the list, the 18th Motorized Brigade” – because cutting and pasting can be imperfect.

Komaxidze says that he made up the list “from media and social media.” We haven’t translated and published this list because we didn’t see that it was verified – there aren’t any links provided to the press and social media sources he claims to have seen.

We have found information about the status of soldiers coming from Vkontakte can be misleading or wrong, so the list has to be sourced with direct reporting. Since the Russian media has tended to deny deployments in Ukraine or even the well-documented deaths of soldiers, even censoring pages from local press about the deaths, it’s hard to understand how it could serve as a source for anything.

The Ukrainian press has been more open, but here, too, no Ukrainian source, even military experts like Information Resistance have claimed to have their own complete research regarding which Russian units are present – they’ve only reprinted Komaxidze’s list.

The independent Russian news site RBC (RosBiznessKonsulting at has found that one reliable way to determine which Russian army units were in Ukraine is to work backward from the known information about those reported as killed in Ukraine. In this fashion, RBC has determined that 5 units of the Russian Airborne Troops division which make up the Russian peace-keeping troops are involved and 5 others were involved, or a total of 11. This is less than the 35 cited by Komaxidze but it is verified.

The investigation by Maxim Solopov was published by RBC on 2 October. The Intepreter has summarized and translated some excerpts. (See also our “How Many Russian Soldiers Have Been Killed, Wounded, or Captured in Ukraine?

Russian military officials are saying that paratroopers from the regular army died “in training in Rostov region,” and any discovered to have died in Donbass are only “volunteers.” But RBC is finding holes in these stories.

“Right at the time of the supposed participation of the Russian troops in the conflict, the state media began talking about a surge of volunteers for Donbass,” said RBC.

As we reported, President Vladimir Putin lit a candle in memory “of those who gave their lives defending people in Novorossiya” on 10 September. This was widely reported as a tacit admission by Putin that Russian troops had died in Ukraine. But RBC followed up and learned from Dmitry Peskov, the presidential administration spokesman, that this wasn’t the case. The president didn’t mean Russian soldiers, said Peskov, only the local volunteers.

“There are no Russian military servicemen there,” said Peskov.

1. 31st Separate Paratrooper Assault Brigade of the Russian Airborne Troops Division based in Ulyanovsk

This brigade took part in the Chechen war. Since 2005, it has been made up entirely of contract soldiers.

On 28 August, Yegor Vorobyev, a reporter for Ukrainian TV Espresso-TV published a story about the POWs of the 31st Separate Paratrooper Assault Brigade. Two soldiers, Ruslan Akhmetov and Arseny Ilmitov, said that they had come for training to Rostov region but then found themselves in Ukraine. “They handed out ammunition on the border,” said Akhmetov. The TV show was taped in the village of Mnogopole near Ilovaisk where Ukrainian forces were surrounded. The broadcast ended with Vorobyev saying they were in an improvised hospital in a school where a Russian soldier who had been burned in a BMD was being treated. Then Vorobyev himself was taken captive and has still not been heard from. Ilmitov and Akhmetov have also gone missing and have not updated their social media pages; their parents refused to talk to RBC.

Anton Gerashchenko told RBC he believed the Russian paratroopers were killed during the shelling of a convoy of Ukrainian soldiers. He learned this from Yuriy Berez, commander of Dnepr-1, who said the two were taken captive by his forces in Mnogopole toward the end of August. He said he held negotiations with their commander, who was nick-named “Klen,” and had only their word for the fact that they were Russian soldiers as they had no documents on them.

“I gave my word as an officer that if they allowed us to leave we would give up the POWs. A POW was put in each vehicle. However on 29 August near the village of Novokaterinovka, they opened fire on the convoy. The vehicle with them (Ilmitov and Akhmetov) was shot at before my eyes.”

But later RBC discovered that in fact Ilmitov and Akhmetov were alive, and had returned to their unit; they did not die in Ilovaisk as originally reported, according to a LifeNews report of 6 September. Although LifeNews is not a credible source as it has been responsible for some of the worst distorted war propaganda in this conflict, apparently RBC was satisfied with the statement.

This unit lost at least two men, Ilnir Kilchinbayev and Aleksandr Belozerov. Now their VKontakte pages have been removed, their relatives won’t speak to RBC, and a notice about Kilchinbayev on a group page was also deleted.

2. 98th Paratroopers Guard of Ivanov and Kostroma Regions

3. 331st Guard Paratroopers Regiment of the Airborne Troops Division

These units took part in conflicts in the Trans Caucasus, Transdniestria, Yugoslavia and North Ossetia as well as the Georgian war in 2008.

Kostroma’s 331st Guard was the unit where the soldiers served who were taken captive by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on 25 August. They were detained near the village of Zerkalnoye in Amvrosievka District of Donetsk Region, which is about 36 kilometers to the west of the Russian border, and about 10 kilometers to the south from Mnogopolya, where the Ulyanovsk paratroopers ewer taken.

“They didn’t get lost, they were just using maps from 2015,” is the joke circulating about the Kostroma POWs. Videos of the POWs interrogated while in captivity were published on YouTube and were intended to support Kiev’s contention that Russia’s regular army was taking prat in the war. The soldiers said they came to Rostov for training, then were ordered to accompany a convoy with vehicles into Ukraine at an unmarked section of the border, and were detained the same day.

The Russian military claims they were lost and accidently crossed the border. They were returned after negotiations on 31 August. Nine of them returned to Kostroma and the 10th, who was severely burned and never shown on videotape, remained in a burn center in St. Petersburg. Lt. Aleksandr Khotulev, the commander in charge of education said they could return to service and refused to elaborate if there were any losses in the company, nor confirm what relatives are saying that at least a battalion of 400-500 soldiers went to Ukraine. Yet relatives say this was the officer who told them on 26 August that there were 2 who had died and 10 wounded. “I think the training will be finished soon…Along with the improvement in the political situation,” Khotulev would only say cryptically to RBC.

The first contractor to die in this unit was Sergei Seleznev of Vladimir on 2 September. A local draft board official told the local news site Pro Gorod that the soldier died “during training in Rostov Region.” Another paratrooper from this unit who died was Andrei Pilipchuk from Kostryoma, although the circumstances are not clear and his social media pages were removed. The editor of Kostryoma’s main portal told RBC that Pilipchuk’s relatives said he had been buried, but they refused to talk to RBC.

A Kostryoma cemetery official told RBC that three paratroopers who had died in Ukraine were buried there; there is an “Afghan Alley” where soldiers who die in conflict zones are buried, and three fresh graves appeared there: Sergei Gerasimov, 26, Aleksey Kasyanov, 32, and Yevgeny Kamenev 27 who died 24 and 25 August and 3 September, respectively.

The wife of one of the soldiers who served with Gerasimov said he was in the reconnaissance platoon of the 331st. She said they were in Ukraine and returned to Rostov in early September when they were finally allowed to call home.

4. 76th Paratroopers Assault Guard Division in Pskov Region

Pskov paratroops have taken part in conflicts in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, the Baltics, Transdniestria, and North and South Ossetia as well as the first Chechen war and Georgian war in 2008. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu thanked the Pskov Guards for taking part in the Crimean annexation of 2014.

After the Ukrainian army found a BMD-2 (the Russian initials for “Airborne Combat Vehicle”) near the village of Georgievka in Lugansk Region on 20 August with a number of documents, Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala published photographs of the documents and identification cards found and people began looking for the soldiers on VKontakte. Among the items were the drivers’ licenses of Ilya Maksimov and Nikolai Krygin. Defense Minister representative Igor Konashenkov dodged questions from reporters. But Leonid Kichatkin and Aleksandr Osipov, whose names were in a log book discovered with the BMD, were buried 25 August in Pskov; their grave markers said they died 19 and 20 August, respectively.

Lev Shlosberg, the regional legislature deputy and founder of Pskovskaya Guberniya, the local newspaper which has covered the deaths, was the one to blow the whistle on the paratroopers deaths. Maximov’s mother also gave a press conference saying military officials would not tell her where her son was. He was finally found in Pskov but could not explain why his documents ended up in a burnt army vehicle in Ukraine. Shlosberg himself was assaulted by unidentified persons in August and hospitalized with serious injuries. He links the assault to his investigations. Relatives do not want to speak about their family members, even anonymously; they are under pressure form the army which is threatening them with the loss of their social benefits.

Shlosberg believes that 2,000 fighters from the 76th Division were deployed on the border of Ukraine.

5. 7th Paratrooper (Mountain) Assault Guards Division of the Airborne Troops Division

The 7th Paratroops is located in Krasnodar Territory in Novorossiysk, Stavropol and Anapa. It is used in peace-keeping in Abkhazia and took part in counter-terrorist operations in North Caucasus.

Paratroopers from other units have died; the local news site covered the death “during training in Rostov” of Nikolai Sharaborin who was in the Airborne Troops Division in Novorossiysk, where the 7th Paratroopers Assault Guard is located. Later, in the editing by the Chita branch of VGTRK (state television), Sharaborin was called “a volunteer who joined the ranks of the militia” and died in Donetsk Region.

6. 106th Airborne Guards Division

The 106th Airborne Guards is located in Ryazan and has taken part in conflicts in Azerbaijan and counter-terrorist operations in the Caucasus.

7. 9th Separate Motorized Brigade based in Nizhny Novgorod

The Ukrainian Security Service announced another Russian POW on 27 August, Pyotr Khokhlov, age 19. RBC found another soldier who had served with Khokhlov who said he was an orphan. In a videotaped confession, Khokhlov says he was drafted into the army in May 2013 and after 9 months, signed a contract to serve in the 9th. His unit was deployed to Rostov then sent into the forest. The soldiers were ordered to line up BMPs, scrape off their numbers and other identifying signs and form a convoy. Khokhlov said 14 vehicles were turned over to some “Chechens” in the Russian border town of Donetsk.

Khokhlov said he and his fellow soldier Ruslan Garafiyev decided to join the separatists and went AWOL where he was captured by Ukrainians on 27 August. His relatives are still searching for him; the Russian military said that he left the unit, and the SBU has no comment. RBC believes there are holes in the story about the soldiers going AWOL. Komsomolskaya Pravda published the stories of two other contractors from the same 9th Brigade, Armen Davoyan and Aleksandr Voronov, who died “on the Ukrainian border” in Rostov Region. Their fellow servicemen told KP that they died on 14 July when they fell under fire as they were protecting refugees. The article was subsequently removed from the site. A brigade officer refused to speak to RBC and contact could not be made with relatives.

8. 17th Separate Motorized Brigades

9. 18th Separate Motorized Brigades

10. 21st Separate Motorized Brigade based in Toitsk District of Orenburg Region

These brigades have taken part in peace-keeping operations in Transdniestria and Abkhazia and also two Chechen campaigns.

In late August, local media in Astrakhan and Bashkortostan published the news of the funerals of Vadim Larionov, Konstantin Kuzmin and Marsel Araptanov from the 17th and 18th Separate Motorized Brigades based in Chechnya. All three died “while fulfilling their service duty” during training in Rostov. Vasily Karavayev from the 21st Separate Motorized Brigade was also killed.

Yelena Vasilyeva, the founder of the Facebook group Gruz-200 (“Cargo 200,” the military term for the transport of the bodies of soldiers killed in action), published a copy of an order removing six soldiers from this same unit from all allowances starting 4 September 2014: Jr. Sgt. Viktor Karpukhin, 25; Pvt. Nikita Surkov, 27; Sr. Sgt. Vitaly Glushchenko, 29; Ensign Aleksandr Nikulin, 35; Sr. Ensign Nikolay Mylnikov, 37; and Sr. Ensign Serge Dymov, 35. Vasilyeva claims they all could have died. RBC was unable to confirm or deny this information. (We have not added them to the confirmed list until more information is available.)

11. 15th Separate Motorized Brigade based in Roshchinsky in the Chernorechye district of Samara Region

The 15th Separate Motorized Brigade, known as the Samara Peace-keepers, is the first peace-keeping unit in Russia, formed in 2004 and is made up of contract soldiers.

The 15th Brigade were sent for training in Rostov Region as well. Viktor Kalinichev, head of the Samara Union of Veterans of the Airborne Troops Division, told RBC that two people told him their relatives had made contact after a long interval on 3 September. The wife of a Samara contractor told RBC that her husband had not been in contact for a long time, then called her in late August from a Ukrainian number, saying he was in Rostov Region for training. The soldier supposedly got a SIM card from a refugee.

There is no information about any losses in this brigade but no one would talk to RBC about it. Kalinichev said that while the soldiers from this brigade were in training in Rostov, they did not go to Ukraine.

“The world is changing, it has changed radically. As you know from past examples, peace-keeping divisions may be in demand unexpectedly,” said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on 6 August when he visited the 15th Brigade of Peace-Keepers. At that time, not everyone in Samara knew what he meant.

So to re-cap, the following units were deployed in Ukraine:

1. 31st Separate Paratroopers Assault Brigade
2. 98th Paratroopers Guard of Ivanov and Kostroma Regions
3. 331st Guard Paratroopers Regiment of the Airborne Troops Division
4. 76th Paratroopers Assault Guard Division in Pskov Region
5. 7th Paratrooper (Mountain) Assault Guards Division of the Airborne Troops Division
6. 106th Airborne Guards Division
7. 9th Separate Motorized Brigade of Nizhny Novgorod
8. 17th Separate Motorized Brigades
9. 18th Separate Motorized Brigades
10. 21st Separate Motorized Brigade
11. 15th Separate Motorized Brigade

Says RBC:

All the military units, whose soldiers died during training in Rostov Region or who wound up as POWs in Ukraine (except for the motorized brigades) made up the base of the peace-keeping forces of Russia. The units of paratroopers cited above were deployed as peace-keepers in August by Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Vyaznikov, deputy commander of the Airborne Troops Division for peace-keeping operations. According to Maj. Gen. Vyaznikov, the establishment of a peace-keeping formation numbering 5,000 troops was completed by late August.

The question of creating special peace-keeping troops was raised five years ago after the operation in Ossetia, Anatoly Tsyganok, head of the Center for Military Forecasts recalls. He says peace-keepers differ from other rapid-response forces by language training (they all learn English and other foreign languages) and the ability to operate under conditions of unrest and mass riots, the ability to interact with the police and law-enforcement agencies of other countries and also a readiness to perform not only purely military but also humanitarian operations. The status of peace-keepers is given only to one brigade of infantry troops and the above-mentioned units of the Airborne Troop Divisions, although peace-keeping divisions are also found in the Russian Interior Ministry’s internal forces.

In March, the Kostryoma, Pskov and Ulyanovsk paratroopers as well as soldiers from other units were deployed in the forcible annexation of the Crimea; in addition to the Order of Suvorov, given to the 76th Pskov Guards in a presidential decree of 18 August, Shoigu also personally thanked the soldiers involved in the Crimean operation. Kilchinbayev, who was killed had received such an order as did POW Yegor Pochtoyev; many soldiers of these units also display this medal on their social media pages.

RBC also makes another interesting connection regarding the soldiers’ deaths — they all took place after Aleksandr Boroday, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Aleksandr Bolotov, the head of the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” and the famous Col. Igor Strelkov, DPR defense minister, were all “retired” and replaced with Donbass-born leadership.

“Moscow is dumping Novorossiya,” screamed all the Russian ultranationalist web sites at the time.

After these Muscovites were removed from the scene, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the new appointed prime minister of the DPR, suddenly announced that he had reinforcements: 150 vehicles (30 tanks and the rest BMPs, BMDs, and BTRs) and “1,200 men who have undergone training for four months on RF territory.” As we reported, these were Russian soldiers.

At a session of the DPR’s Supreme Soviet, Zakharchenko said of these soldiers, “They were released here at the most critical moment.”

“Only a few people in the leadership of the republic knew that literally in a few days some serious changes would take place and the enemy would be delivered a decisive defeat,” Strelkov told RBC later when he returned to Moscow.

As a result, the Ukrainian army’s offensive on 19 August met with a counter-offensive from the Russian-backed separatists — and a surge of Russian soldiers. Terms that had not been used since World War II returned to the Russia media, which spoke of “the Ilovaisk and Mariupol kettles” where the Ukrainian army was surrounded. Indeed, by 27 August, about a thousand Ukrainian troops were surrounded in Ilovaysk, Amvrosievka ad Starobeshevo by Russian troops.

On 28 August, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko publicly used the term “invasion” about Russian troops in Ukraine for the first time. Several hours after Poroshenko’s announcement, Putin, in an appeal to the separatists using the term “Novorossiya,” spoke of “serious successes in cutting off the Kiev forces’ operation” and called on the Russian-backed fighters to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian military under siege.

Ukrainian military expert and journalist Konstantin Mashovets told RBC that the separatist fighters could not have managed without the support of the battalion tactical groups (BTGs) of the Russian army. Anatoly Tsyganok, a Russian military expert, said the BTGs were formed in the regular army about 10 years ago during the South Ossetia campaign; they usually have 450-500 soldiers in them. Such groups could be made up of artillery, armored vehicles and soldiers and officers with various specializations — scouts, sappers, signal officers, spotters, and so on. It would be normal practice to include motorized riflemen and tankers, they said.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe believed that the maximum number of Russian forces deployed in combat in Ukraine was up to 10 BTGs. But Mashovets and a Ukrainian commander Berez believe there were at least 3 or 4, which would approximate the number given by Zakharchenko of the reinforcements sent to him (1,200). He said that 4 Russian BTGs (about 1,500 soldiers) remained in Ukraine after the ceasefire.

The Russian Defense Ministry rejected Gen. Breedlove’s claim in a press release:

Four battalions with vehicles is not a needle in a haystack. Not to mention the supposed 10 BTGs that were supposedly there the week before. For a multi-starred general to make such notorious statements, based exclusively on his own “notions” is at the very least careless.” The Defense Ministry characterized the claim about soldiers still remaining as “fabrications.”

The Defense Ministry refused to answer RBC’s questions about the deaths of more than a dozen soldiers from various units “during training in Rostov Region.”

Both the separatists and the Russian state media developed an alibi about the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine — they were going there “on vacation,” and using their own personal time to help “Novorossiya.”

But this story doesn’t hold up — in the 331st regiment alone in Kostryoma, there is a soldier who died “as a volunteer”; those who died “during training in Rostov Region” and the contractors who “got lost,” all in uniforms without insignia, as well as another one who was wounded.

If the videos of the POWs displayed at a press conference in Kiev are to be believed — and they were made under coercion — they weren’t volunteers but regular army. Lt. Khotulyev would not explain how the soldier from Kostryoma got wounded. As for the deaths, these were being investigated by the Southern Military District — but their press office refused to comment.

Sergei Krivenko of the human rights group Citizen Army Law says that engaging in combat during leave is prohibited and because it is unlawful, a soldier couldn’t count on getting any social benefits afterward. Yet all the relatives say they have been promised benefits. A group of Soldiers’ Mothers and other human rights advocates met with Nikolai Pankov, deputy defense minister, on 2 September and handed him a list of soldiers who had been killed containing about 15 names. But no reply has been received since then.