A Russian death in Syria

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

How significant is Russia’s first military death in Syria? Fiona Clark in Moscow takes a look at the polls and finds that support is still strong – but for how long?
Vadim Kostenko was buried earlier this week. The 19-year-old’s open casket was carried through the streets of his home town by fellow soldiers to its final resting place. No priest presided over the ceremony, reports claimed, because the boy’s death – the first casualty of Russia’s involvement in Syria, was allegedly a suicide – a sin in Orthodox eyes.

His family aren’t buying the military’s story that their son hanged himself because of problems with his girlfriend. They claim they spoke with him regularly and he was happy and laughing. The military, however, claims it checked Vadim’s mobile phone and found evidence of a difficult relationship and unreturned text messages immediately prior to his death. The girlfriend has said on social media that the story is a ‘lie.’ Vadim’s uncle has told the press there were signs of violence on his body – a broken jaw and contusions to the back of his skull.

A few decades ago suicides were rarely admitted by the military, but in the mid-2000’s that began to change as statistics came out showing that up to 60 percent of deaths in non-combat circumstances were suicides. The culture of bullying and appalling conditions were blamed and the government vowed to do something about it.

Vadim was a contractor who signed up to go to Syria of his own free will, the military claims, because he was saving up to buy a car. His girlfriend says he was told if he didn’t go he’d lose his job.

Irrespective of how he got there and the cause of his death, no one wants to see young boys coming home in body bags and the story has created a big stir in the Russian media with some of the more independent outlets also questioning the military’s story. But will it be enough to sway Russians’ faith in their government’s involvement in a foreign war?

Poll support for Syrian involvement

Two weeks ago the Levada Center, a public opinion polling agency, released a survey showing 72 percent of Russians supported airstrikes on “Islamic State” (IS) positions in Syria and 47 percent were behind the decision to support President Bashar al-Assad. That’s up 8 points from the previous poll taken in late September just two weeks after the air-strike campaign began.

These results follow from record highs in terms of public support for the government and the military. After the annexation of Crimea 78 percent of Russians said they had confidence in their military forces and just last week the president polled a whopping 89.9 percent in the popularity polls.

But public opinion can be a fickle thing. While support appears to be high on one side, another poll shows there are some serious concerns about the Syria operation that can only be fueled by the teenager’s death. A different Levada poll shows that 35 percent of respondents are worried that the operation in Syria will become the “new Afghanistan.” Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 saw the country embroiled in 20 years of conflict with more than 15,000 deaths.

While the government has said the Syria operation will be a short and sharp there is also concern about the mounting cost of the campaign. One Russian media outlet, RBC, estimates that it amounts to about $2.5 million (2.3 million euros) a day. The Levada poll shows that 41 percent of respondents think that that money could be better spent on fixing the ailing Russian economy and the country’s social problems. Other respondents (18 percent) said they feared an IS backlash against Russia because of its involvement, one of the very things President Putin says the conflict is meant to quash.

Death toll

Vadim’s death was first reported by a group called Conflict Intelligence and later confirmed by the military. Conflict Intelligence was started by an activist and blogger and it claims there have been other Russian deaths in Syria that have yet to be publically reported by the military.

When it comes to Vadim’s death, one Communist Party people’s deputy, Valerie Rashkin, isn’t buying the military’s line either. He’s called for an inquiry claiming the family story and military’s reports don’t add up.

If Conflict Intelligence is proved right and more bodies come home in bags, and if an inquiry finds the military has been withholding the truth on the numbers and/or reasons for death, public opinion could turn very quickly.

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