Another Russian serviceman in Ukraine, a genuine volunteer, or something else?
On June 24, a diversionary group was apprehended by the 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine during a raid in Luhansk Oblast. Four men were captured, and another was killed during the incident. One of the men captured was Viktor Ageyev, a 22-year-old Russian citizen who was reportedly an active serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces.
The photographs above were published by the Ukrainian journalist Yulia Kiriyenko on her personal Facebook page. Kiriyenko also included the following description in her June 26 post:
Viktor arrived from Russia to fight us. He arrived to work for the murder of our boys in the East. For this, Viktor was given a machine gun for that. Viktor wasn’t very good at shooting it. And when the time came — he choked. Which played into the hands of our boys. Now Viktor is with us. And not just him. He is just one from a diversionary group which our boys from the 93rd Brigade recently seized near Zholobok (Luhansk Oblast). They aren’t cadets [trainees], as some would have you believe. Although… it’s a pretty common practice to give up your own.
It should be noted that Luhansk separatist officials referred to the captured men as cadets from Kharkiv, thus distancing themselves from their capture.
So, who is Viktor Ageyev, and what can we say about this raid that led to his capture?
Ageyev and three of his comrades were seized near the village of Zholobok, located 75 kilometers from Ukraine’s border with Russia and on the front line between government controlled territory and the Russian/separatist-controlled territory.
Information about the raid was first announced on June 25 via the Facebook page of the press center for Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).
The information in this release was similar to that shared by Kiriyenko the following day: both sources mention that four men were captured, one was killed, and two of the casualties were Russian citizens. The information in the release also included a list of seized weapons.
The second Russian, who was killed during the raid, was Aleksandr Shcherba. This man was reportedly the leader of the group.
While the ATO Press Center’s release and the June 26 report by Kiriyenko do not contradict one another, there are additional reports from Ukrainian journalists that describe different circumstances related to the incident. (The best summary of these can be found on the Ukrainian news site GordonUA). Yury Butusov, who is perhaps the most plugged-in journalist when it comes to the Ukrainian military, reported on his Facebook page that Ukrainian soldiers attacked the Russian/separatist diversion group with knives in the late morning of June 24.
The destruction of the Russian diversion group was carried out with an special degree of boldness and cold-bloodedness. They used knives to slaughter not some kind of inexperienced mercenaries, but Russian Spetsnaz forces. And the attack, judging by the messages on Russian forums, was carried out at 10am — with the expectation that a weary night guard will relax the enemy, and they would not expect an attack.
Officials from a Ukrainian military unit denied that knives were used, in a Facebook post.
Butusov also reported on his site, censor.net, that, according to sources on a separatist web forum, Ukrainian soldiers cut out the eyes of at least two Russian/separatist fighters. This information has not been confirmed, and has been repeated by Luhansk separatist officials. A handful of extremely graphic photographs have appeared online. They supposedly show two Russian/separatist fighters who died during the raid, but these materials have not yet been verified.
There are multiple accounts, and alleged corroborating photographs, that Ukrainian forces killed two killed Russian/separatist fighters, rather than one, as previously reported. According to Andriy Tsaplienko, a journalist with the Ukrainian news outlet TSN, the Russian commander Aleksandr Shcherba was the target of the raid, and that a second man was killed alongside Shcherba.
After his initial capture, statements from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments, and an interview with Ageyev himself and his mother, there is a lot of information to process and contextualize about the supposed Russian serviceman.
What is clear is that Viktor Ageyev is a 22-year old Russian citizen who was fighting with Luhansk separatists when he was captured. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on June 28 that Ageyev “had never served in Russia’s armed forces under contract and was discharged from draft duty last year.” This information coincides somewhat with the military identification card that was shared on Facebook on June 26, showing that he was studying gas welding in a college and carried out his year of conscription service at Military Unit 65246 at Novocherkassk in Russia’s Rostov Oblast.
Российский военный Виктор Агеев, попавший в плен под Желобком (крайний слева) pic.twitter.com/P5roJWly07
— Денис Казанський (@den_kazansky) June 28, 2017
The crux of the story is what Ageyev did after his year of conscription service, which ended in 2016. If Russia’s Ministry of Defense is to be believed, Ageyev had no further relationship with the Russian Armed Forces after the end of his conscription service and went off to join the Luhansk separatists with no assistance from Russian officials. However, both Viktor Ageyev and his mother have said that he signed on as a contract soldier in 2017, which would have made him an active Russian serviceman at the time of his capture in Ukraine. The BBC Russian Service reports that the minimum term for a Russian contract soldier is two or three years. However, in 2016, a law was passed that allowed short-term military contracts, with terms up to one year. These shorter contracts allow the Russian Ministry of Defense to “quickly mobilize forces for particular tasks, which is important in the rapidly-changing world.”
Ageyev last contacted his mother on May 30, 2017 — about three weeks before his capture. His mother told the BBC Russian Service that he signed his contract on March 18, 2017 and was moved to a new military unit in Baltaysk in Rostov Oblast, which corresponds with the 22nd Independent Guards Brigade of Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency (GRU). Ageyev himself confirmed on his VKontakte page on April 1, 2017 that he signed a contract — presumably referring to being a contract soldier for the Russian Armed Forces.
For more information on Ageyev’s page on Vkontakte and his use of the pseudonym “Vitaly Popov,” see InformNapalm’s June 28 investigation, where they found archived information showing that Ageyev had changed his display name on the social network.
Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin met with Ageyev’s mother, Svetlana Ageyeva, in Barnaul and conducted an interview about her son and his situation.
In the interview, Ageyeva describes how she expected paperwork to be sent to her regarding her son’s status as a contract soldier, but it never came, convincing her that something was strange about her son’s contract service. She also spoke of how her son sent her photographs of his promotion to corporal, himself dressed in a military uniform on base, holding a military banner, and so on. He left by himself on a train from Barnaul to Rostov Oblast on March 17, which led to some doubts in the mind of his mother — why is he going by himself, and not through the military office, and why is he meeting up with someone in Rostov after being given “coordinates”?
Ukrainian journalists from the television news program TSN interviewed Ageyev himself on July 9 (Russian translation here). In the interview, Ageyev describes the “contract” that he signed, which raises as many questions as it provides answers.
Interviewer: And what did they tell you?
Ageyev: That I would sign a contract here, in the LNR, and would continue to serve here.
Interviewer: And with that you would be counted as part of the Russian army? Or something else?
Ageyev: I don’t know, I didn’t ask for specifics.
Interviewer: Your mom says that after you completed your conscript service, you tried to find yourself, but as a result of that you went to Bataysk in the 22nd Brigade. Was it so?
Ageyev: Well, I wanted to. It didn’t work out there.
Interviewer: So where did it work out?
Ageyev: At the same unit where I served.
Interviewer: This is also at the Rostov Oblast?
Interviewer: And what unit is that?
Ageyev: Air Force. When I went to my conscript service, I did not fulfill any special tasks. There were some duties, internal service. The contract soldiers did their own program there, and we were just there to maintain the barracks. (…) Before I went to Luhansk, I didn’t spend a long time in Rostov. I went here right away.
Interviewer: And when did you leave on the contract?
Ageyev: Already here, in Luhansk. Well, I returned to my unit, and from there I went to Luhansk.
Interviewer: And how long did you spend at your unit before Luhansk?
Ageyev: About four days.
Interviewer: So, you went to your unit, served there for four days, signed some sort of contract, and then immediately went off to Luhansk? Something isn’t right here. Why so fast?
Ageyev: There was probably some dispatch. I didn’t delve into this question. They sent me off. They’ll pay me money. Service is service.
Ageyev also specified that his copy of the contract he signed was in separatist-controlled Alchevsk, and that it was a typical one-year contract with no mention of Ukraine. He was to be paid 15,000 rubles on the 15th of every month.
Degree of deniability
While there may seem to be a cut-and-dry distinction between “mercenary” and “active Russian serviceman,” the difference is not so clear in the case of Russia and the Donbas. Despite Ageyev’s own claim and his messages to his mother, it is still not entirely certain that he was an actual Russian serviceman in 2017. As Kanygin’s interview with Ageyeva and his own interview with TSN makes clear, there are some strange inconsistencies in his contract signing and departure to Rostov Oblast, raising doubts that he was a “true” contract soldier.
However, this is not to say that Russia and its Ministry of Defense are not connected to the manner, as there are unanswered questions about how Ageyev and Shcherba were recruited to Luhansk Oblast to fight amongst the forces of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic. Additionally, Ageyev was adamant and specific about spending four days at a Russian military unit before leaving to the Luhansk. Though he is sure that he signed a contract and was a “true” contract soldier, it is entirely possible that the contract he signed was not a typical or valid one.
A number of investigations have documented how the Russian Armed Forces have facilitated the recruitment of Russian “mercenaries” to fight in the Donbas, often through the local military commissariats in Rostov Oblast. Novaya Gazeta, in particular, has produced excellent investigations into this phenomenon, including the June 2014 article “Farms for the Wild Geese” by Viktoriya Makarenko and the September 2014 “Army and Volunteers” by Elena Kostyuchenko. In these cases, veterans and soldiers are funneled through a part of the Russian military apparatus to the so-called separatist forces, with a degree of deniability and lack of paper trail tying Russia to these fighters.
Someone is not telling the truth, whether it is the truth-challenged Russian Ministry of Defense, or Viktor Ageyev, who admitted to not asking many questions about the supposed contract he signed before being shuffled off to Luhansk. It may be some time before we know what Ageyev’s real status was with the Russian Armed Forces and, unfortunately, there is no available open source evidence that allows us to conclusively answer this question as of now. Additionally, the allegations that Ukrainian soldiers tortured the Russian/separatist forces near Zholobok should be investigated. Even though separatist officials have been notoriously unreliable in their claims regarding potential war crimes, there are multiple sources — including anonymous sources from the Ukrainian Armed Forces speaking with Ukrainian journalists — who indicated that the treatment of the killed and captured Russian/separatist forces was especially brutal and excessively cruel.