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Since the official start of the Russian operation in Syria, there have been lots of reports of Russian servicemen being killed. However, each time we found no confirmation of those reports. But on October 25, while monitoring social networks, our team found this message:
The message was an epitaph for a serviceman of the military unit 20926 (834rd Air Force training center, Zernograd, Rostov region) Vadim Alexandrovich Kostenko, born on 18.04.1996 (19 y/o), "killed in Syria while on military duty". We checked his social network profiles and those of his friends and relatives and found may confirmations that he indeed was a contract serviceman, who finished his draft service in June 2015 and signed the contract right after that.
Vadim's vk.com profile:
Vadim’s profile shows he was online on October 23 and was a member of the vk.com group dedicated to active and former servicemen of military unit 20926.
Mourning posts from friends:
Photos during Vadim's draft service. His draft term ended in June and he signed up as a contract soldier right away:
In the comments to the photo above, posted after he had finished his draft service, Vadim confirms he has applied for contract service.
"He was killed in Syria, he served there":
This girl wrote that Vadim was killed on Saturday, October 24, with 9 other “Russian guys”.
It should be noted that the girl writes: "…coming from the unit in Akhtary". "Akhtary" is the Primorsko-Akhtarsk military airbase, military unit 75387, Primorsko-Akhtarsk district, Krasnodar region. The airbase houses the 960th Close Air Support Regiment of the 1st Guards Combined Air Division, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army. All Su-25 Frogfoot jets currently based in Syria are from that very regiment. We believe that upon finishing his draft term in the training center, military unit 20926, Vadim signed a contract with the 960th Close Air Support Regiment, military unit 75387.
Two months before his death, after he had finished his draft term and signed the contract, Vadim published a photo where he is seen in a Russian Air Force uniform:
"Killed on duty":
It should be noted that the recent Reuters report on 3 killed Russians refers to October 20 while Vadim was killed on the 24th. It means this post is not a confirmation of the Reuters report.
On October 23 (a day before Vadim's death), Wall Street Journal published an article on Russia's involvement in the Syria conflict where they told they had information on first Russian casualties in Syria. A source in Russia's Ministry of Defense confirmed the death to WSJ but said the soldier died due to mishandling weapons, not in combat. Link to article (paywalled). Quote from the article:
The Defense Ministry publicly denies any Russian deaths have occurred as a result of its operations. But the ministry official who confirmed the special forces also said that one Russian soldier has died in Syria due to 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:
— Rami (@RamiAlLolah) October 23, 2015
To check this information, we contacted a friend of the dead serviceman under a legend and asked her about the circumstances of his death:
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.
We have no information on the other "9 killed soldiers" as of yet. We continue the investigation.
There are many versions as to how Vadim could have been killed. We believe he was not a pilotб which means this wasn't a downing of a plane or helicopter. The relatives say he was "killed". However, Vadim served in the Air Force personnel servicing the aircrafts at the airbase (i.e. even in case of a ground operation he coulldn't have been on the frontline. Theoretically, Vadim could have gone into town from the airbase and got into trouble there.
UPDATE: after our investigation was published, many journalists contacted the relatives of the deceased Vadim Kostenko. In particular, Reuters talked to Vadim’s relatives. They told Reuters they did not believe the official cause of death (suicide). However, in the afternoon Russia’s Ministry of Defence announced the soldier’s cause of death was suicide due to a fallout with his girlfriend. Also in the Afternoon of October 27, a Reuters reporter witnessed a coffin being delivered to the Vadim’s village. Reuters reported that the soldier’s sister said she saw marking on his neck, while no other damage was found.
Earlier, we found out that Vadim’s girlfriend was Tatiana Suprun. In her Instagram profile, she published (saved copy) Vadim’s photo with words of mourning. In the comments, other users asked her if what the media said was right (obviously meaning the reports that Vadim commited suicide due to a falling out with her). Tatiana replied it were lies.