In a stirring tribute to his country’s troops and veterans, Russian President Vladimir Putin honored the dead in Syria.
“If a man is ready to go to the end to sacrifice himself in the interest of his people, then indeed this is the highest form of courage,” Putin said in a speech Friday to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day, the country’s version of Veterans Day. He was speaking of men such as Senior Lieutenant Alexander Prokhorenko, who in March 2016 was in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, calling airstrikes on Islamic State targets for Russian jets overhead.
State propaganda arm Channel 1, in a broadcast Sunday, described his acts. Suddenly surrounded by the enemy, Prokhorenko made a decision that would earn him the rare title of Hero of the Russian Federation. He called his own grid coordinates and ordered friendly jets to bomb his position, in effect calling for his own death to deny the Islamic State the propaganda victory of a captured Russian soldier.
Channel 1 broadcast the tribute spliced with combat footage of airstrikes to emphasize the moment, including roaring Su-25 ground support aircraft and one quick glimpse through a sniper’s scope of military vehicles blowing up.
That scene is from a battlefield where countless lives have been lost, but only in the digital world — it’s footage from the popular combat simulator Arma III, made by Prague-based Bohemia Interactive.
And it’s not the first time the Russian government has inserted video-game footage to purportedly show combat in Syria.
Bohemia Interactive confirmed that the split-second footage was taken from their game, company spokesman Ota Vrtatko told The Washington Post.
“We didn’t provide any authorization for using footage from our game in this way,” Vrtatko said. The game is a combat simulator in which opposing teams battle with customized weapons in a giant “sandbox” environment.
The episode comes three months after Russia’s foreign minister said the country had “irrefutable evidence” that U.S. troops were giving Islamic State fighters safe passage after a key Russian operation against the militants. As evidence, Russia provided images of drone footage, lifted from a smartphone game in which players attack nondescript convoys from the controls of a U.S. gunship.
The Pentagon at the time called the allegation and purported evidence a recurring pattern of “defamation, distortion and distraction.”
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “mistakes happen” in response to the November incident and that the person involved was punished.
It is unclear why Russian state media passed off a combat simulator as genuine footage. The Arma series has sold 12 million copies since 2006, Vrtatko said, making it a prominent and therefore easily identified game throughout the world. The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment, and a U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to give an attributable comment.
The game was quickly identified on Pikabu, Russia’s version of Reddit, and speculation flew about how the game ended up in a serious tribute. “Maybe this is a hidden message from the staff,” one user ventured. Another person suggested it was an Easter egg tucked into the broadcast for curious viewers to find.
But the popularity and granular detail of Arma may be why that game was specifically chosen.
“We’re always aiming for a very realistic simulation game,” Vrtatko said.
Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.