The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unusual difficulty of tracking Russia’s dead in Ukraine and Syria

A pro-Russian separatist tank drives past locals on a road in Aleksandrovsk town, near Luhansk, Ukraine, on Oct.3. (Alexander Ermochenko/EPA)

Russia’s new war in Syria has modern attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and now, its first official death.

While there have been various reports of Russian casualties in the month-old conflict, Interfax confirmed the death of Russian soldier Vadim Kostenko with an anonymous Russian Ministry of Defense official Tuesday. Prior to the confirmation, Russian blogger Ruslan Leviev, published his own post highlighting Kostenko’s death by using the dead soldier’s social media account and contacts.

[Mystery surrounds first death of Russian soldier during Syria offensive]

According to a report from Reuters, Kostenko, 19, was a soldier from southern Russia operating out of Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, Syria. Russian media reports said Kostenko had committed suicide after breaking up with his girlfriend. However, according to the Reuters report, his family contests that Kostenko killed himself, noting that he had a good relationship with his girlfriend and was happy in the days leading up to his Oct. 24 death.

Russia has continuously denied battlefield losses in both Ukraine and now Syria, a symptom of the fact that Russia has always kept quiet about its casualties in both peace and wartime—a policy that dates back to the Soviet Union.

Russian troops have been providing airstrikes and artillery in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since Russian forces began combat operations Sept. 30. In Ukraine, however, Russia has yet to admit that its soldiers have participated in combat operations alongside Ukrainian separatists even though evidence of their involvement is rampant.

[Why Russia is in Syria]

Last week, various reports surfaced citing Syrian government officials that Russian soldiers had died from a shell burst in Latakia Province, a report the Russians promptly denied, stating that Russia does not have ground troops fighting alongside Assad’s forces. U.S. defense officials, however have repeatedly said that Russian soldiers are embedded with Syrian troops to help call in air strikes and “enable” Assad’s forces. Other news reports have also indicated that Russian special forces are operating in Syria.

While Russia had admitted to its one lone death in Syria, to date there have been no official tallies or remarks on Russian losses in Ukraine. A Web site, however, that tracks Russian deaths using social media accounts, estimates that more than 400 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine since the conflict began in the spring of 2014.

Various reports alleged Russian forces were cremating their casualties in the field using mobile furnaces in order to hide their losses. More than likely, however, Russia is following a tradition that began in earnest during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s of shipping their dead home in wooden coffins lined with zinc.

[The UK would like Russia to explain how a thermobaric rocket launcher ended up in Ukraine]

Then, while Soviet troops battled the elusive Mujahideen in the valleys and deserts of Afghanistan, Soviet dead were sent home in the zinc-lined coffins. Zinc was cheap, readily available and didn’t rust. If the soldier wasn’t too disfigured, a slit would be left near the head for viewing, but if the body was too mangled the coffin would be sealed.

The zinc-lined coffins and their macabre presence in Russian society during the Afghan-Soviet war spawned the title for the 1992 book “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.” The book, a oral history of the war, was written by 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Svetlana Alexievich. It includes an account of one mother trying to pry open her son’s coffin with a screwdriver at his funeral.

According to some on social media, Kostenko, the Russian who died in Syria, was dropped off at his family’s home in a wooden coffin lined with zinc and sealed.

[In Syria, hints of Soviet helicopter tactics from Afghanistan]