Finding Putin’s Dead Soldiers in Ukraine
On September 17, The Interpreter, a special project of the Institute of Modern Russia, will be presenting “An Invasion by Any Other Name: The Kremlin’s Dirty War in Ukraine,” an in-depth forensic accounting of evidence showing Russian weaponry and Russian soldiers in combat in the occupied regions of east Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin has to date denied any involvement by his armed forces in the year-and-a-half-long war, one of the more difficult aspects of proving the contrary has been documenting “Cargo 200”—a long-used military euphemism to describe Russian war dead. The following excerpt from “An Invasion,” written by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, examines one case in particular and nicely ties it in with attempts by Russian civil society to get to the bottom of a “missing” paratrooper company of Russia’s Pskov Airborne Troops Division, said to have been killed in action in Ukraine.
The Curious Case of Leonid Kichatkin
Trying to follow up on clues left on VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook, can be frustrating—and ultimately dangerous to reporters. Anatoly Vorobey, a Russian-language blogger based in Tel Aviv who blogs at avva.livejournal.com, discovered just how unreliable social media can be for investigating such cases when he followed up on a story broken by Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala.
In late August 2014, he posted a picture of the logbooks from a Russian BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicle. The logbook included a listing for Leonid Kichatkin, age 30, a senior sergeant in the unit. Several days after Vorobey’s discovery, a notice boxed in red was posted to Kichatkin’s VKontakte page that read: “Dear Friends!!!!!!!!!! Lyona [Leonid] was killed funeral Monday at 10:00 wake in Vybuty. Who would like to bid farewell please come we will be glad to see you. If anything call [telephone number] Wife Oksana.”
Vorobey found earlier posts from Oksana on her own page, saying first that she was waiting desperately for news of Leonid, then that “life had stopped,” and finally that she expected her husband’s coffin “within five days.” All of this, plus the condolences of friends, appeared to be unmistakable proof that Kichatkin was among those killed at Lutugino.
By Sunday, August 24, however, Kichatkin’s page on VKontakte had been removed. At about the same time, Oksana (or perhaps someone else who had assumed control over her account) wrote: “My husband is alive and well and we are now marking the baptism of our daughter.”
Ivan Vasyunin, a journalist from Russkaya Planeta, posted a notice on Twitter that he had reached Oksana and also spoken to a man who identified himself as Leonid, and that the couple had asked people not to call.
Secret Funerals for the 76th
Slon.ru’s Aleksei Ponomarev reported on August 25, 2014, that the funerals for the dead paratroopers had been closed to the public. He was told by a local eyewitness that about 100 people were present at the service, conducted at a small cemetery near a 15th century church, not far from the military base of the 76th Division. The funeral was under police guard, and no outsiders were permitted to attend.
Military spokesmen denied the stories, even though wreaths from the military were found on the graves. Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, said that “everyone is alive and well in our assault paratroopers division.” Major General Igor Konashenkov of the Russian Defense Ministry also said such information was “a falsehood” when Ukrainian forces said they had seized a Russian BMD with documents of paratroopers killed or captured.
When pictures of the soldiers’ graves began to appear on social media, pro-Kremlin trolls said the images had been Photoshopped, and a debate about the authenticity of the news ensued. Hoping to get to the bottom of the story, on August 25, Novaya Gazeta’s Nina Petlyanova and Irina Tumanova, a reporter from the St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka, traveled to Pskov Region to find out more.
Initially, when Petlyanova called the Kichatkins, Oksana Kichatkin once again insisted that her husband Leonid was alive, and that his VKontakte page had been hacked. Oksana gave the phone to a man who said he was Leonid, was alive and well, and had not gone anywhere because his wife was “pregnant, plus there are three children.” He also offered to “sing a song for you or dance for the video camera” to prove his status as living.
Baffled, the journalists continued to the graveyard near the 76th Division base, where they found a grave with the name of Leonid Yuryevich Kichatkin and the dates of his life, September 30, 1984–August 19, 2014, as well as wreaths from military units. They found a major standing near the grave who told them that two soldiers had just been buried, Kichatkin and another whose grave read “Aleksandr Sergeyevich Osipov [December 15, 1993–August 20, 2014].” The major turned out to be the father of Aleksandr Osipov. He was mourning that he had sent his own son off to war in Ukraine.
As is customary at Russian gravesides, the major had a little table with bottles of vodka, bread, and tomatoes for the wake. He and the journalists drank to the memory of Aleksandr, and the major said: “He wanted to be a hero... Soldiers have a job to do. Somebody has to pay their debt to the motherland.” He said that Aleksandr’s convoy had been caught between mortar and Grad fire after spending only a week in Ukraine. He didn’t know how many had been killed, but said there were more to bury.
Near Kichatkin’s grave, the journalists also discovered one of Kichatkin’s relatives, who said that the family had held a brief service for Kichatkin, who had “been killed near Lugansk while fulfilling his military duties.” That was all he knew. By now, the telephone number Petlyanova had been calling, on which Kichatkin’s wife and her supposed husband had previously responded to queries, had been disconnected.
The pair returned the next day, August 26, to investigate the other graves with Vladimir Romensky of TV Rain and Ilya Vasyunin of the Russian news site Russkaya Planeta; however, they were pushed back by a group of local thugs whom they believed had been directed by the authorities. They then met up with other reporters from Novaya Gazeta and Fontanka and attempted another visit and were attacked again, but Romensky and Vasyunin managed to film their ordeal.
In one of these videos, which became emblematic for the Russian media community of the thwarted attempts to cover the Cargo 200 issue, the journalists were shown caroming around a graveyard in a car as hooded thugs in tracksuits threw rocks at the vehicle to try to break their windows and wielded large screws to try to puncture their tires. One reporter made a frantic call to police to try to get the authorities to intervene; another reporter tried to get the attackers to back off, saying that he and his colleagues would leave the cemetery. Meanwhile, clearly seen in the background of the video were fresh graves, heaped with flowers under wooden cross-barred Russian Orthodox crosses and wreathes from the Russian Airborne Division. As one YouTube commentator, Dmitry Shchelokov, noted on TV Rain’s video posting:
These aren’t thugs hiding their faces; this is Putin showing his face. This is the essence of Putin’s policy, just as in the attack on Ukraine—hidden faces, obvious intentions and obvious contractors [to carry out the job]. Putin’s FSB sent their thug stand-ins to prevent the journalists from finding the graves of the Pskov paratroopers, killed in Ukraine, a small crime to cover up the tracks of a bigger crime of Putin.
Russian military officials denied any relationship of the incident to the war in Ukraine. But TV Rain also reported that Sergei Kovalchenko, editor-in-chief of the Telegraf wire service, was stopped at the cemetery in Vybuty on August 26 as well. Venera Galeyeva of Fontanka also tweeted about the attack.
On August 30, Petlyanova reported that Kichatkin’s relatives were being threatened with the loss of any death benefits or pensions connected to their loved ones if they spoke to the press. The division commander stonewalled the reporters. Relatives of the alleged slain said they had heard nothing from the men since August 15 or 16; worse, they said, the 76th’s commanders told them to keep quiet and not talk to the press or anyone else.
The Missing Paratrooper Company
Ultimately, an entire company of Pskov paratroopers was reported to have been killed fighting in Ukraine in August, Pskovskaya Guberniya and Slon.ru reported on September 2. After these outlets published the news of the three paratroopers’ funerals, they were contacted by other paratroopers who requested anonymity but gave them a tape of an interview with soldiers in the company. The soldiers on the tape claimed that only 10 men had survived out of 80 and that as many as 140 could have died.
Lev Shlosberg, the Rostov regional deputy in the Yabloko Party, told Russian blogger Oleg Kashin that the families of the paratroopers were told to keep quiet and threatened with the loss of state welfare if they spoke out. Shlosberg said the causes of death were listed variously as “explosion of a gas tank,” “heart attack,” or “stroke.” The places of death were not indicated.
To date, no one has been able to produce a list of all 80 names from the 1st Parachute Paratrooper Company of the Pskov Airborne Troops Division. What happened to them remains an open question.
Meanwhile, reports began to trickle in of funerals not only in Pskov Region but also in Belgorod, Voronezh, and elsewhere. One woman, Olga Alekseyeva, the wife of 27-year-old Sgt. Ruslan Fyodorov, a contract soldier killed in battle, said officers told her “everything’s fine, everyone’s alive,” although by that time, it was already known that at least three other paratroopers from the 76th had been killed. Alekseyeva confirmed that Anton Korolenko, who had studied in the same military academy as her husband; Kichatkin, with whom he had also served; and Aleksandr Osipov, mentioned earlier, had also been killed. Osipov, Korolenko, Fyodorov, and Kichatkin were all in the 234th First Company of the Pskov Air Assault Guards of the Airborne Troops Division, which was considered to be the combat-ready company “in the event of war,” Alekseyeva explained.