MOSCOW -- A Russian serviceman who was filmed saying his military base had surveyed troops on their readiness to fire at protesters has backtracked on the claims in a video released by the Defense Ministry, alleging that his words had been "distorted in the worst way."
The retraction was part of a contradictory official reaction to a video interview posted online on May 21 by the Tyumen regional chapter of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's campaign.
In the four-minute clip, Artur Yepifantsev, a special-forces marine at the Pavlovsk submarine port in Russia's Far East, says that "people from Moscow" had come to his base and instructed all troops to complete a list of survey questions. "They were trying to figure out our political views and which opposition politicians we support," he says.
He says one question struck him as particularly unpleasant.
"If unrest or demonstrations break out," he recalls. "Will we use weapons against protesters if an order is given?"
The video quickly spread online, prompting the Defense Ministry to dismiss it as a "primitive fabrication." But four days later, the ministry's own Zvezda TV channel published a video featuring a very different Yepifantsev. This time, the 20-year-old marine is shown sitting in a sports jacket inside a spacious wood-paneled room, his left elbow resting on a large table and a piece of paper placed before him.
Speaking in a deadpan voice and bureaucratic jargon, Yepifantsev explains that he was passing through Tyumen on his way to visit family in the nearby town of Kurgan when he decided "for the fun of it" to visit the Navalny campaign headquarters and help popularize service in the armed forces. He claims they asked him to don military fatigues and speak on camera about his attitude to the military.
"After watching my interview on the Internet I saw that my words and the meaning of what I said had been distorted in the worst way," Yepifantsev is shown saying. He denies that any opinion survey had taken place at his military base.
"I deeply regret turning to this organization," he says of the Navalny chapter in Tyumen. "I have a strong sense of shame that I unintentionally disgraced my base, my commander, and my fellow soldiers."
Yepifantsev could not be reached for comment on May 27. Ivan Vostrikov, the Navalny campaign coordinator in Tyumen, told RFE/RL in an interview that the video published by the Defense Ministry was a "gift" to his team.
"He's been instructed to say such stupid things on camera," Vostrikov said over the phone. "If you know anything about the situation in our country, or what the Navalny campaign does, the idea that he came to us to popularize service in the Russian Army is ludicrous."
Surveys 'Not Anonymous'
Vostrikov said the young serviceman had written to his team on May 5 from an e-mail address bearing someone else's name, expressing his desire to publicly reveal details about problems at his military base. Vostrikov and his team regularly post videos to their YouTube channel exposing local corruption, so they took him up on the offer.
"A lot of people come to us to discuss injustice," Vostrikov said. "Defrauded home investors, people being evicted from their homes or charged with the illegal construction of a road that local authorities refused to build."
According to Vostrikov, Yepifantsev offered to cover half his face with a balaclava, but the Navalny team decided to additionally blur it. Afterward, Vostrikov said, the marine gave a list of Russian publications with whom his contacts could be shared. Vostrikov put him in touch with a journalist at regional news outlet Znak.com.
In the resulting interview, published online on May 22, the serviceman expanded on the claims he'd made on camera, and revealed his first name and his military base: the 159th special-forces detachment in Pavlovsk, tasked among others with defending ships of the Pacific Fleet. He said he regretted not photographing and posting online the political opinion surveys he had referenced.
"We thought that a survey of the kind was taking place all over Russia," he told Znak.com. "Soldiers in major cities can easily photograph and post the survey, so we thought we'd soon find them online."
Along with 110 other troops at his base, Yepifantsev said he gave "the answers that the leadership wants to see": he said he supported none of the 10 opposition politicians named in the surveys, and stood ready to fire on protesters if the order is given. "There was no other way," he said. "The surveys were not anonymous."
It's only the latest case of Russian servicemen embarrassing their superiors at a time when a fall in the Russian government's approval ratings appears to be driving protest potential across the country.
In 2014, during the most active phase of Russia's military interference in Ukraine, social-media accounts of Russian soldiers were mined for data by open-source journalism sites like Bellingcat, which contributed to reports debunking Moscow's claims that the Russian Army was not involved.
In December 2018, the Defense Ministry was forced to issue yet another denial after a conscript in the Far East told a local news outlet that troops at his military base were being forced to give 500 rubles ($8) each toward the construction of a new cathedral outside Moscow, a pet project of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In an apparent effort to curb the flood of leaks, the State Duma in February passed a bill prohibiting soldiers from using smartphones or other devices while on duty and posting any details of their military bases or operations on social media. It also forbade them from speaking to journalists.