Why Russia is afraid of its own dead soldiers

GlobalPost
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Russian Air Force
Russia runs combat flights in Syria from the Hmeymim airfield.
Russian Defense Ministry

As soon as Russia’s airstrikes in Syria began in September, many observers wondered when to expect Moscow’s first military losses.

It happened. Russia's Defense Ministry on Tuesday said a 19-year-old serviceman committed suicide last weekend at a Russian Air Force base in Latakia — the first officially confirmed service member to die during the deployment in Syria.

Officials say Vadim Kostenko hanged himself amid relationship problems. But his friends and family, who laid him to rest Wednesday, are not convinced.

"His body arrived last night. We saw his nose and jaw were broken, he had marks on his neck," Yekaterina Kostenko, the soldier's 14-year-old sister, told Agence France-Presse inside the family home before the funeral. "This was not a suicide."

Kostenko’s friends reportedly heard of at least two other versions of his death.

Whatever the truth, Moscow is in no mood to talk about its military losses. Earlier this month, officials brushed off news reports that said at least three Russians, thought to be volunteer combatants, had died fighting alongside Syrian government forces.

Russian state television — where a vast majority of Russians get their news — and a range of public officials have cheered on the Kremlin’s campaign in Syria. The military has even taken to social media to broadcast images of an air war being fought with style and precision.

More from GlobalPost: Russian volunteer fighters may be headed for Syria, too 

Most Russians support the airstrikes in Syria, according to polls, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have soared to new heights since the intervention began. Just like with the war in eastern Ukraine — where Putin earned widespread praise at home for backing pro-Russian insurgents — propaganda is key.

That’s partly why some analysts believe the Kremlin would go a long way to cover up any potentially embarrassing developments.

“Bureaucrats and military officials probably think that by admitting casualties, they cast a shadow over the infallibility of state policy,” Anton Orekh, a prominent Russian political journalist, wrote Tuesday.

More from GlobalPost: This is what the Russians are saying about Moscow’s airstrikes in Syria

“They probably want for people sitting in front of the television to continue watching the bombardment in Syria as if it’s a feature film, where it’s cranberry juice that’s being spilled instead of blood.”

There may be a real-life red line for most Russians: around two-thirds oppose sending in ground troops, a move that would probably remind Russians of their protracted military disaster in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Back then, the Kremlin deceived the public by masking the true body count there. It's done the same in eastern Ukraine, where despite Russian official claims that none of the country's soldiers took part in military operations, activists found them buried in fresh graves in several different Russian cities.

Still, it’s unlikely that Kostenko’s death will have a major effect on the public mood — as long as it’s the only one.

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.