Since Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, 2015, at least 12 Russian soldiers have been confirmed by the Russia Defense Ministry as killed, but independent journalists and bloggers have documented several more deaths and discovered reports of dozens more killed but not acknowledged by the government.
Unlike the war in Ukraine, where the Kremlin pretends it is only local separatists who die in combat despite hundreds of Russian soldiers reportedly killed there, in Syria, deaths are admitted and soldiers celebrated as heroes, given posthumous awards.
But the Kremlin is careful to describe the circumstances of their deaths as not in combat per se—since officially, there are no Russian boots on the ground. Instead, they are portrayed as heroically sacrificing their lives as they guard convoys of humanitarian aid, guide strikes by the Syrian Air Force, or “negotiate” among various factions through the Russian-created Center for the Reconciliation of Hostile Parties.
The following is a list of Russian soldiers confirmed as having died in Syria; one reported to have committed suicide, nine killed “while performing military assignments” and two in a helicopter crash.
1. Vadim Kostenko, a contractor in the 960th Close Air Support Regiment, reported to have committed suicide on the Hmeemeem air base on October 24, 2015. Officials claimed he was despondent over a break-up with a girlfriend, but his family, who talked to him frequently, including on the day he died, denied this explanation. An unnamed friend of Kostenko’s told investigative blogger Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) that smoke had been seen at the base the night before Kostenko died and that up to nine other soldiers had died in the same incident.
2. In November 2015, Fyodor Zhuravlyov, a spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) officer reported by CIT to have served in Russian military intelligence (GRU) as late as the summer of 2014, was involved in “guidance of high-precision weapons of the strategic air force,” according to a “highly-placed source in the Defense Ministry.” On March 17, 2016, President Vladimir Putin met with four soldiers’ widows; Yuliya Zhuravlyova, the widow of Fyodor was among them.
3. On November 24, Oleg Peshkov, pilot of the Su-24M shot down by a Turkish fighter jet, was killed after he ejected from the plane. His body was found riddled with 8 bullets. His widow was among those who met with Putin in March 2016.
4. That same day, Aleksandr Pozynich, a marine, was killed during the operation to rescue Peshkov’s co-pilot.
5. In February 2016, military advisor Ivan Cheremisin was wounded when a Syrian training center was attacked, and subsequently died. Video released by the Free Syrian Army at the time indicated that a gathering of uniformed personnel in the western Latakia province had been targeted with a US-made TOW missile. Cheremisin is likely to have been one of those killed in this attack.
6. In March 17, 2017, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, a spetsnaz lieutenant, was killed in the Palmyra region. Russian military officials acknowledged an officer was killed during the effort to re-take Palmyra, but at first did not report his name. Kurdish fighters said they negotiated with ISIS to return his body to the Russian military. His body was brought home to Russia April 29, 2016 and he was given honors posthumously by President Putin. Prokhorenko was said to have been surrounded by militants when he was guiding Russian air strikes near the town of Tadmor. The Defense Ministry said he directed an air strike upon himself to protect his comrades. However video of Prokhorenko’s body and equipment that was released by ISIS suggests a rather less kinetic death.
7. In April, Andrei Okladnikov was killed in a helicopter crash reportedly over rebel territory outside of Homs; Russian military officials said the helicopter was not shot down.
8. Viktor Pankov was killed in the same helicopter accident.
9. Anton Yergyn, who was accompanying vehicles from the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Hostile Parties, was wounded when the convoy came under fire by militants. He was posthumously given an award.
10. On June 15, Andrei Timoshenkov was wounded in Homs while guarding humanitarian convoy of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Hostile Parties in Syria. He subsequently died of his injuries. He was said to have prevented a suicide bomber from driving a car full of explosives into an area where civilians were receiving humanitarian aid.
11. On June 16, Mikhail Shirokopoyas, an artillerist, 35, from the village of Seryshevo was killed. Reports appeared in the local press of his death in Syria, but then were removed. Later national media reported that the Russian Defense Ministry had confirmed his death.
In addition to these 11 confirmed deaths, independent media and bloggers have found a number of others killed in Syria.
Vadim Tumakov, a contractor from Orenberg said to be from the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops died “under unknown circumstances.” Vasily Panchenkov, head of the press office of the Interior Troops said Tumakov had served in the forces as a cook and a supply officer for the Vityaz [“Knight”] spetznaz unit from 2002-2004. After serving his term, he was discharged and there is no other record of his service.
But local news site Or enday said that one Vadim Tumakov from the Sol-Ilets City District was killed in battle “liberating Syria from ISIL terrorists,” the second native of Orenberg to die there (the first was Aleksandr Prokhorenko).
In March, the St. Petersburg news site Fontanka.ru published an article on mercenaries in Russia’s Wars, claiming Russia’s losses of soldiers in Syria “numbered in the dozens.” The piece, authored by former police officer and security consultant Denis Korotkov, followed up on a number of past stories published in Fontanka on mercenaries in the Slavonic Corps, a private military contractor set up in 2013. Many Slavonic Corps fighters later joined another PMC called “Wagner,” named for the nom de guerre of a colorful figure who espoused the ideology of the Third Reich and who fought in Ukraine as well as Syria.
A number of Wagner contractors who had fought in east Ukraine transferred to Syria, Fontanka reported last year. Korotkov was able to find details for three contractors killed in Syria, although he believes there are many more.
These fighters’ deaths were not announced by the Russian Ministry of Defense because they were not formally part of the armed forces, although Korotkov discovered that some of them received medals. President Vladimir Putin had issued secret decrees to give awards posthumously to these military contractors killed in Syria in battle.
Sergei Chupov, 51, a major in the reserves whose nom de guerre was “Chub” or “Chupa” was the deputy commander for combat preparation. He was killed outside of Damascus. The CIT and the RBC news service also reported his death.
Chupov had served in Afghanistan and two wars in Chechnya in the army and was transferred to the 46th brigade of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, before resigning. He then came back to fight in Syria, although his widow and Kremlin spokesmen have denied that he was there.
CIT thought he had returned possibly as an officer of the Special Operations Services or a “negotiator” or was even redeployed in the Armed Forces. But Korotkov says he joined Wagner in May 2014 and moved to Rostov and then the village of Vesyoly, where Wagner had a training base to prepare Russian fighters for the war in Ukraine (the base was moved later to Molkino in Krasnodar Territory).
Chupov was killed on February 8, 2016, according to his gravestone, but there are some reports that in fact he was killed in January. A source told Korotkov that a grey-haired older man in a leather officers’ jacket, an FSB officer with at least the rank of major general, had come to Molkino to hand out medals, some of them posthumous. Fontanka said they did not believe the story at first, but then they obtained documents that confirmed the awards—posthumous award cards with Putin’s signature.
Maksim Kolganov, 38, a Don Cossack from the village of Zhigulyovskaya, was killed February 3, 2016 “while performing a combat assignment,” a local Cossacks’ Internet forum said.
Kolganov, too, was employed by Wagner, as far as Fontanka could determine, and served as a BMP (infantry fighting vehicle) gunner and operator near Latakia. His army buddies supplied photographs of him in Latakia.
Another mercenary who went by the call sign Shlang [“Hose"] who real name is not known, believed to be among Wagner fighters in a picture in Ukraine’s Donetsk region with other militants, was killed later in mid-December 2015. He and a group of 7 others were returning from a reconnaissance mission when he set off an anti-personnel mine.
Of the 93 men sent to Syria, only a third returned safe and sound in December 2015, say Korotkov’s sources. They did not come up with any other names beyond the three, however, and explained that it was difficult to document the deaths, which mainly occurred in January and February in the battles for Palmyra, because even those serving in the same platoon did not always know each others real names.
“Curiosity is not welcome,” said one source.
Thomas Grove, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who interviewed Korotkov, pointed out that Korotkov has been the only journalist to write on Wagner or (OSM as it is formally called); no members of Wagner itself would speak to Grove. But he also found three other sources that reported that “eight or nine” contractors from Wagner were killed in October 2015 when a mortar round hit their base in Western Syria.
One source was an official described as “close to the Russian Defense Ministry” who said Wagner had numbered 1,000 men who were supplied with T-90 tanks and howitzers. Another source was Ivan Konovalov, director of a Moscow-based security think tank and consultant to lawmakers who are trying to legalize military contractors, which currently operate in a legal grey zone. Konovalov and the official said the contractors killed were originally members of Slavonic Corps, which had previously served in Syria and was disbanded, but then returned to Syria with Wagner.
In May 2015, Putin passed a decree making it a criminal offense to divulge information about the deaths of Russian military abroad; despite a legal case filed by independent lawyers and journalists against the measure, it was upheld by the Russian Constitutional Court. Even before that, reporters, bloggers and activists who tried to track down social media reports of deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine were threatened or beaten. The soldiers’ relatives were warned they could lose death benefits if they talked to the media. These reprisals put a chill over media coverage of war casualties.
The Kremlin has been more forthcoming about deaths in Syria, but that’s because Russia’s air force presence in Syria is officially acknowledged, as is the bombing ostensibly of ISIS strongholds—which has in fact involved decimating forces in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The deaths and posthumous award ceremonies are even part of the Kremlin’s patriotic propaganda fueling the war.
But the murky world of mercenaries cannot be acknowledged by the Russian military as long as such contractors are illegal. And Russia would likely prefer to keep it this way to have as much “plausible deniability” as possible in Syria.