Accessibility links

Breaking News

One Russian's Syria Cyber-Trail: He's On A 'Fighting Mission,' Wife Says

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 9 that if reports of Russian military activities in Syria were true, "it could lead to greater violence and are not helpful at all," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

On a recent Wednesday, a person claiming to be the wife of a Russian soldier took to an Internet forum for new and expecting mothers to voice her concerns about her husband's most recent assignment with Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

"Right now they are on a looooooong voyage somewhere in the direction of Syria," the individual using the name Yulia wrote, in Russian, of her husband and his fellow soldiers. "Yes, yes, I know that it is DANGEROUS THERE -- but I don't decide anything, and no one even asks IF I WANT HIM TO GO THERE."

That Russian soldiers would be traveling to Syria is not unusual: Russia has for years maintained a military outpost at the Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus and supplied weapons to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But Yulia's September 2 post came amid mounting reports of increased Russian military presence in Syria, which have sparked concern among Western governments about Moscow's potential involvement in Assad's war with armed antigovernment and radical Islamist fighters.

And it caught the eye of Russian blogger Ruslan Leviyev and his fellow web sleuths, who deduced from a plethora of social-media evidence that Yulia was the wife of a Russian serviceman named Yury Artamonov.

They created an account on the blog to contact Yulia and probe for more details about her husband's purported deployment.

Yulia responded by writing: "They're forbidden from disclosing anything. But by all accounts they are traveling [there] to guard either an aerodrome or an airport, or to escort someone. But he said it's a fighting mission."

'Deep Concerns'

The exchange, which has since been deleted at the website, was one of numerous examples of Russian servicemen and their relatives chronicling their travels to Syria recently in what is widely seen as mounting evidence that Russia is stepping up its presence in the war-torn country.

Leviyev and his team published a collection of these posts on September 5. They echo the social-media trail Russian soldiers have left on networking sites like VKontakte that has badly undermined the Kremlin's denials that active Russian servicemen are fighting Kyiv's forces alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The blog post appeared four days before Russia's Foreign Ministry acknowledged on September 9 that Russian military experts are present in Syria.

Maria Zakharova, chief spokeswoman for the ministry, said these specialists were assisting with Russian arms deliveries to the Syrian government, which Moscow says are aimed at combating terrorism -- part of the Kremlin's argument that if the United States and its allies want to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group they need to cooperate with Assad, not seek his exit.

Western governments are not convinced.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 9 that if reports of Russian military activities in Syria were true, "it could lead to greater violence and are not helpful at all," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One on September 9 that Washington had "deep concerns" about the reports and that "it would be unconscionable for any party, including the Russians, to provide any support to the Assad regime."

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has long insisted that Assad, whom Washington accuses of inflicting massive violence against his own people, cannot be part of a possible postwar government in Syria.

A September 9 report by Reuters, meanwhile, quoted three unidentified Lebanese sources as saying that the Russian military was now involved in operations to support Assad's troops.

The report quoted two U.S. officials as saying that Moscow had shipped two tank-landing ships and "additional aircraft" to the Syrian government "in the past day or so" and had also "deployed a small number of naval infantry forces," or marines.

An assertion by one of the U.S. officials quoted by Reuters appears to be consistent with the claim by Yulia at a week earlier that her husband was possibly being sent to Syria to "guard either an aerodrome or an airport."

Citing the official, Reuters reported that Russian military personnel in Syria may be tasked with "preparing an airfield" near Latakia, Syria's main port city and a stronghold of Assad's forces.

The New York Times has quoted U.S. administration officials as saying Russia had sent prefabricated housing units and a portable air-traffic-control station to the airfield that serves Latakia.

'Very Creative Marines'

Leviyev and his fellow online detectives have taken pains to point out that the social-media evidence of Russian soldiers in Syria does not necessarily indicate they are taking part in combat missions.

Much of this evidence has been scrubbed by the purported Russian servicemen who posted the photographs, though Leviyev managed to save copies before they were deleted.

A person using the name Maksim Mazhnikov, and calling himself a Russian contract soldier, late last month posted photographs of himself on the Russian social-networking site Odnoklassniki that were apparently taken in Syria.

One shows him standing in front of collage featuring the faces of Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin with a handwritten caption in Russian that reads: "A Time For Courage And Real Men."

Publicly available photographs uncovered by Leviyev have since been deleted from the VKontakte page under the name Maksim Mazhnikov. The page now features a large middle finger with an obscene Russian-language caption.

Like Mazhnikov, Yury Artamonov, the Russian serviceman whose wife, Yulia, allegedly complained in an Internet forum about his deployment "toward" Syria, appears to be a contract soldier as well.

He was featured in a short video dedicated to Russians who "defend the motherland" as a profession that in April was posted on YouTube by a Moscow-based designer named Aleksei Martin.

Artamonov's wife posted a still from footage used in the video on her VKontakte page, and in Instagram posts discovered by Leviyev she describes her husband as a member of a marine assault battalion.

Martin, who posted the YouTube video featuring Artamonov in April, said the short film was made with the help of "very creative marines with the Black Sea Fleet."

"Thank you each and every one!" he wrote.

With reporting by Reuters and The New York Times
  • 16x9 Image

    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.