MOSCOW – Russia’s Ministry of Defense on Tuesday announced that one of its active duty servicemen had died in Syria, the first confirmed death of a soldier there since Russia began an airstrike campaign in the war-torn country late last month.
Vadim Kostenko, 19, a soldier servicing Russian warplanes at a base in the port city of Latakia, committed suicide on Saturday, the Ministry of Defense told several state news agencies.
But online activists and Kostenko’s parents, who confirmed the death of their son, say that they do not believe that he killed himself.
For now, the circumstances of Kostenko death remain murky.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that Kostenko had hanged himself at the base during a break from work because of relationship problems.
“The contract serviceman stationed at the Hmeimim airbase as a technician committed suicide while he was resting after duty,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing a source in the Ministry of Defense.
It is standard practice for the ministry to make statements without citing an official by name.
“According to the preliminary information obtained, in particular, in the analysis of text messages in his phone, the reason for the death of the contract serviceman is problems in his personal relationship with a girl," the statement says.
Kostenko’s parents, speaking to the Reuters news agency, said that he had been cheerful when they had spoken with him on the phone Saturday, the day that he allegedly killed himself.
“I will never believe this version,” meaning suicide, Svetlana Kostenko, the soldier’s mother, told Reuters.
Kostenko’s body was returned home in a polished wooden coffin.
The Russian military was accused by the West of covering up the deaths of soldiers fighting in east Ukraine to hide Russia’s involvement in the conflict and to prevent a public backlash against the government. Analysts said that political support for the airstrike campaign could also be affected if Russian incurs serious casualties.
Before the airstrike campaign began, only 14 percent of Russians supported direct military intervention in Syria, the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, reported. A week later, more than 70 percent said they supported airstrikes in Syria.
Analysts said that the swing in public opinion was partially related to messaging on state-run television, and partially related to the wording of the question. More Russians support airstrikes, which they see as a limited engagement, than an intervention that could include a ground war. President Vladimir V. Putin has said that ground troops will not fight in Syria.
The campaign is Russia’s first major overseas combat mission since the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a conflict that left more than 10,000 Soviet soldiers dead and is often seen as the country’s Vietnam.
Kostenko’s death was first noted by anti-Putin online activists led by blogger Ruslan Leviev, who used social networks to identify Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine despite Russia’s assurances that none of its active duty soldiers were fighting there.