At half past six in the morning, on September 2, a captain from Russia's 106th Guards Airborne Division arrived at the outskirts of a remote village in the Samara region, a triangular stretch of southern Russia between the Volga River and Kazakhstan. He had been driving through the countryside for hours. Seemingly endless rows of birch trees eventually gave way to flat stretches of farmland, until a signpost beside a small cemetery announced the village of Podsolnechnoye. The vehicle bounced along a rutted road, past clusters of dilapidated single-story houses, and came to a stop in front of a modest white brick home.
The captain had travelled nearly 900 miles from Rostov, on the border with Ukraine, in order to make a personal delivery. With him was a sealed zinc coffin containing the body of a 20-year-old paratrooper named Sergei Andrianov.
Relatives were waiting to greet them outside. Sergei's older brother and uncle stepped forward with an angle grinder and set about opening the coffin. His mother Natasha remained inside the home. "I was hoping there was a mistake," she told VICE News. "They took so long to bring him, I thought maybe he was wounded and they were treating him." Outside, the men managed to pry open the coffin. Natasha heard her daughter begin to scream.
Natasha Andrianova says she feels betrayed by the government and the army she trusted her son to.
In photographs, Sergei is often smiling, his boyish face set in a calm gaze. Built like a featherweight fighter, he had close-cropped sandy hair, blue hooded eyes, and an angled jaw. But in death, Natasha could barely recognize her son — his expression frozen in a grimace, eyes wide open and mouth agape. The left side of his face had turned blue, while his nose was twisted at an odd angle, as if someone had yanked it to the side. His body was covered in dirt, which had caked under his fingernails. A fatal blast wound to Sergei's heart was hidden beneath a fresh military uniform intended for a man twice his size. A pair of flimsy rubber flip-flops dangled from his feet.
The family had spent five days waiting for the body to arrive, during which time Sergei's brother "raised hell" within the division — calling anyone he could reach in a fruitless attempt to find out how his brother died. At one point, an exasperated officer told him to give up. "Quit calling,"the officer said. "They'll give you 100,000 rubles ($1,850) — more than enough to drink and remember him. What more do you want?" But Natasha wanted answers. "How did he die? Where did he die?" She paused, tears welling up in her eyes. "My son is gone and no one can explain to me how it happened."
Natasha showed VICE News the documents she received along with her son's body. "Blast trauma," read the handwritten scrawl on the army death certificate. "One shrapnel wound in the chest, with damage to heart." No word on what caused the blast or where Sergei died. According to a military forensics report, at 9pm on August 28, Sergei, who served in Russia's 137th Guards Airborne Regiment, was carrying out a "special mission" in a "place of temporary dislocation." There was "an explosion, from which Corporal Andrianov received a traumatic injury not compatible with life, as a result of which he died on the spot." Although the paperwork was signed and issued in Rostov, on each document the place of death was perplexingly listed as "point of temporary dislocation."
"They make it sound like a government secret," Natasha said, looking down at her lap. When she spoke again her voice was quiet but firm. "But honestly, I want to say that it is a government crime."
Natasha Andrianova said she could hardly recognize the body of her son Sergei on his return.
Related: The Kremlin's Secret War: Russia's Ghost Army in Ukraine
Natasha is still struggling to piece together what happened to her son. In mid-August, his unit was sent to Rostov for military training exercises. His phone went out of service and he stopped responding to emails. On August 21, Sergei called Natasha from an unfamiliar number to tell her he was safe. "He was whispering, like he was in a rush," she recalled. "I thought it was strange but he told me not to worry." Seven days later, the family was informed of his death.
Russia isn't officially at war, but its soldiers are dying. Sergei is one of dozens — possibly hundreds — of active-duty Russian servicemen believed to have been killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies sending troops into battle, claiming it has no direct involvement in the conflict raging across the border. But Sergei's story is one of numerous accounts gathered by VICE News from soldiers' families, human rights workers and government officials that cast doubt on the official narrative. The stories reveal the toll of a war that doesn't officially exist, and the unacknowledged sacrifices borne by Russia's ghost army.
'Everyone is silent. They understand where it all happened, and that you can't speak about it.'
In late February, heavily armed men in unmarked green uniforms fanned out across parts of Crimea in an operation that would lead to Moscow's annexation of the peninsula. Asked whether the so-called "little green men" were actually Russian soldiers, President Vladimir Putin insisted they were "local self-defense forces" who probably acquired their Russian-looking uniforms in Crimean shops.
But during a nationally-televised broadcast in April, the president calmly announced that Russian troops had in fact been deployed to occupy and annex Crimea. As Putin spoke, pro-Russian gunmen were seizing control of government buildings in east Ukraine — a region the president now called "Novorossiya," or "New Russia," as it was known under Tsarist rule. Were Russian forces involved there as well? "It's all nonsense," Putin scoffed. "There are no special units, special forces or instructors there."
In one fell swoop, Russia redrew the international border that had been part of an independent Ukraine for 23 years. The move provoked furious denunciations abroad, with threats of sanctions and diplomatic isolation. But domestically it was a watershed event for Putin, unleashing a flood of patriotic fervor. His approval skyrocketed from 65 percent last January to 80 percent in the aftermath of the Crimea referendum, and would continue to climb even as the economy tanked.
The image of Putin that many Russians saw was one of a strong leader, unafraid to confront the West and restore the country's rightful place among the great powers. But critics accuse the president of manipulating events to consolidate power. "Without question, Putin is using Ukraine to achieve his domestic political goals," said Victor Shenderovich, a Moscow satirist and author. "He was a few years ago a lame duck, a person without legitimacy, now suddenly the return of Crimea and we see a huge rise in support for Putin."
The conflict in east Ukraine, meanwhile, was getting worse. By August, the Ukrainian military was making gains against the pro-Russian rebels, pushing them back towards their strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk. In danger of being encircled, the separatists renewed calls for Moscow to send troops to their aid.
Russia embarked on a massive military build-up on the border, reportedly doubling the number of combat-ready troops to an estimated 20,000. As NATO and American officials warned of an outright invasion, soldiers like Sergei Andrianov deployed to the border for what Moscow described as training drills. Just like Sergei, many would return home in body bags.
The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers has been declared a "foreign agent" since going public with its claims on Ukraine.
Sergei's case matches up with dozens of accounts collected by the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a network of NGOs that has been defending the rights of servicemen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Valentina Melnikova, who heads the organization, says at least 500 members of the armed forces were killed in Ukraine, citing information from relatives and soldiers. That number roughly corresponds with US estimates. But without officially-confirmed lists, the extent of Russia's involvement is difficult to verify. "It's clear there's the use of Russian armed forces," said Sergei Krivenko, a member of Russia's Presidential Human Rights Council, a quasi-independent body that advises Putin. "In one way or another, they're participating in the conflict but it's all being covered up."
The first information came from worried parents, unable to get in touch with sons serving in Rostov. Local chapters of the Committee of Soldiers'Mothers began reporting overflowing military hospitals, packed full of wounded soldiers. Then came the coffins, as bodies of soldiers with trauma wounds began arriving in villages across Russia. Their documents, too, listed the place of death as "point of temporary dislocation."
For Melnikova, there's a sense of déjà vu. Russia has a history of downplaying military casualties that dates back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, when coffins were delivered to families in the dead of night. It continued with the Chechen wars in the 1990s. But the military underwent significant reforms in recent years, meant to add a new layer of accountability. The death or injury of a Russian soldier, especially in peacetime, is supposed to trigger an official inquiry. "Of course, there are rare instances when something happens by accident, but here we clearly see battle wounds as the cause of death — and these aren't isolated incidents —and there's been no criminal investigation to date," Krivenko told VICE News.
None of this was covered by state-controlled media, from which most Russians get their news. Television reports portrayed the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" bent on slaughtering Russian speakers in Ukraine. Programs were rife with conspiracies about a "fifth column" threatening Russia from within, and a string of documentaries portrayed prominent writers and politicians as traitors for speaking out against the war.
All of this contributed to a climate of fear that made some families reluctant to go public. Natasha feels isolated by the secrecy surrounding her son's death — not only from government officials, but also among neighbors in her village. "Everyone is silent," she said. "They understand where it all happened, and that you can't speak about it."
'The scale of the coverup is colossal. We don't know exactly how many soldiers were killed in Ukraine, but the number is in the hundreds — possibly more.'
That wall of silence would begin to crumble in the last week of August, when fresh graves in the Russian city of Pskov offered a link between Kremlin and the fighting in east Ukraine.
Situated near the Estonian border, about a five-hour drive from St. Petersburg, Pskov is one of Russia's oldest and most beautiful cities, teeming with onion-domed churches, some of which date back to the 12th century. It was here that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, sounding the death knell for the Russian empire and paving the way for the creation of the Soviet Union. These days, it's largely known as a military city — hometown of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division.
Pskov's paratroopers deployed to Rostov in early August; families quickly became anxious when the soldiers stopped calling and writing. On August 21, Ukrainian officials announced the capture of two Russian armored vehicles following a clash near Luhansk. They also claimed to have recovered a number of documents, among them a roll-call journal listing the names of 60 Pskov paratroopers. Photographs of the documents were posted online. It wasn't necessarily a bombshell — the internet was rife with forgeries — but it set off panic among the families, which caught the attention of local news media.
Russian officials insisted nothing was amiss. "A pure provocation," said the commander of Russia's airborne troops, who flew to Pskov the following day. "In our airborne assault brigade everyone is alive and well." But word of losses within the division was spreading rapidly across the city and online. "Leonid died," wrote the wife of Sgt. Leonid Kichatkin, posting an invitation on the social media site Vkotntakte for friends to attend a funeral scheduled for that Monday. The post would soon be taken down, but not before going viral.
Irina Tumakova, an independent journalist from St. Petersburg, intended to cover the funeral, but when she phoned Kichatkin's wife, the woman on the line insisted that her husband was alive and well. "I was fully confident that we would write a story about how this is all rumors, how no one was killed and the document was just another fake," Tumakova told VICE News.
The cemetery on the outskirts of Pskov is now the resting place for a number of soldiers who have died in Ukraine.
On Monday morning, a church at a small cemetery on the outskirts of Pskov began to fill with people. High ranking officers in dress uniform milled about outside. According to Lev Schlossberg, a local politician and the publisher of an independent newspaper, "this wasn't a funeral for Kichatkin, but likely a goodbye ceremony for servicemen who were later buried there and in other regions."
Having got lost along the way, Irina Tumakova arrived to the cemetery several hours late. By then the area was deserted, save for several soldiers leveling the dirt on two freshly dug-graves. The first belonged to Sgt. Kichatkin, killed on August 19, and the second to Sgt. Alexander Osipov, who died on August 20. Mistaking the reporter for a fellow mourner, a man offered Tumakova a swig of vodka. "My son is here," he said, pointing to Osipov's grave. "Wanted to be a hero." She nodded towards Kichatkin's grave and asked whether he was killed in Ukraine. "Where else?" came the reply.
On August 26, Schlossberg's paper broke the story, setting off a scandal. The division closed ranks. Soldiers' families refused to speak to the press. Unidentified men began to guard the graves, blocking access to any outsiders who tried to get close. Between August 26 and 27, at least seven journalists investigating the mysterious deaths were threatened or attacked, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most violent incident involved Schlossberg himself, who was hospitalized for several weeks after being beaten by unknown assailants. "It was a political decision," he told VICE News. "They attacked me professionally. These weren't street hooligans, they knew well where to hit and how to hit."
By the time VICE News visited in October, the men guarding the graves were gone, but the climate of fear remained. None of the Pskov families would go on record and the division didn't respond to inquiries. This did not surprise Schlossberg. "The ones who know what happened are terrified to speak," he said. "They tell them, 'if one of you says this was in Ukraine then that's it, we'll rip the contract and stop the financial support and you'll end up on the street' — and in many cases the soldiers were the sole breadwinners."
Despite the violence, Schlossberg's paper continued to publish reports on the deaths, including information from leaked transcripts suggesting that up to 80 Pskov paratroopers died in a clash with the Ukrainian army on August 20. Schlossberg believes the losses across the entire army are much greater. "The scale of the coverup is colossal," he said. "We don't know exactly how many soldiers were killed in Ukraine, but the number is in the hundreds —possibly more."
'If it weren't for the internet, we would have never found out.'
On August 26, the same day Schlossberg's paper published its Pskov report, Ukraine announced it had captured ten Russian paratroopers on its soil. That afternoon, Putin flew to Minsk to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. The talks were aimed at paving the way for a resolution in east Ukraine. By the time the two men awkwardly shook hands in the Belarusian capital, Kiev had released interrogation videos of the soldiers in its custody.
The captured paratroopers were from the 331st Airborne Regiment, based in Kostroma. In what appeared to be forced confessions, the soldiers said they were misled by their commanders, who told them they were going on a training exercise, and instead sent them across the border.
The Kremlin admitted the incursion, but claimed that it was a mistake. "What I've heard is that they were patrolling the border and could have ended up on Ukrainian territory," Putin told journalists in Minsk.
But in Kostroma, the videos unleashed a firestorm amongst the families. "When were they planning to tell us what happened?" asked one furious mother in an interview with RFE/RL. "After a week? Two weeks? If it weren't for the internet, we would have never found out." Relatives began gathering at the division to demand answers. A group of tearful mothers held a press conference, begging Putin to bring home their sons. Under pressure, the Kremlin eventually exchanged 63 Ukrainian soldiers for the ten paratroopers.
The events drew the attention of Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker and member of Russia's lower house of parliament. He requested an official inquiry into the deaths of three dozen soldiers believed to have been killed in Ukraine, including those buried in Pskov. Citing privacy laws, the Defense Ministry refused to comment, dismissing the suggestion of Russian military deaths as a "rumor" spread by Ukraine and the West. "The Russian Federation is not a party in the conflict between the government forces of Ukraine and the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who disagree with the policies of the country's leadership," read the reply.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers filed a petition asking Russian investigators to look into the allegations. Several days later, the local chapter was officially declared a "foreign agent," a status often used to discredit critics of the government.
'He went because he was ordered to go. Move forward, destroy military positions, and keep going.'
Despite Moscow's efforts, the growing controversy was becoming difficult to ignore. With the Kremlin narrative at risk of unraveling, it suddenly changed.
On the evening of September 5, all three state-controlled TV channels aired a report about a Russian soldier killed in Ukraine. It was the first time the death of an active-duty serviceman was covered by state media. Viewers were shown footage of a funeral for a 28-year-old paratrooper, who was buried with full military honors, complete with a gun salute. The soldier was described as a patriot "who could not idly observe events in Ukraine." All three networks claimed he was a "volunteer" who didn't tell his wife or commanders he was heading to Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russia rebels.
Melnikova scoffed at the notion: "What volunteers? There's no such thing for a soldier under Russian law." In order to take a vacation, a Russian soldier needs to fill out a report to his commander detailing where he'll be during his time off. To leave the country, the process is even more complicated, requiring the permission of his commander, the defense ministry and the FSB. Moreover, Russian criminal law doesn't distinguish between someone who goes abroad to fight for a personal belief and someone who fights for money. In either case, he is considered a mercenary, a crime punishable with jail time.
But those facts did little to undermine the new narrative, that Russian soldiers, motivated by kinship with their Russian-speaking brethren in east Ukraine, were voluntarily flocking across the border to fight the fascist Kiev government.
Nikolai Kozlov was hailed as a hero after being injured while fighting in Ukraine. The state says he was a volunteer, but his relatives deny this.
Another state television report on so-called volunteers featured a baby-faced Russian paratrooper named Nikolai Kozlov, who lost his leg during an ambush in Ukraine. Sad piano music played over footage of Nikolai recovering in a hospital room, his pregnant wife at his side. In an interview, Nikolai's father, a veteran of the Afghan war, said he was proud of his son: "He was fulfilling his duty until the end."
Except Nikolai wasn't a volunteer. "He went because he was ordered to go," his uncle said. "Move forward, destroy military positions, and keep going."
The uncle, Sergei Kozlov, recounted the battle as told by his nephew. His unit crossed the border on August 18; six days later, it was ambushed. Nikolai heard a rustling in the bushes, but before he could drop to the ground, a mortar blew off his right leg. He doesn't remember much that happened afterwards, just that he applied a tourniquet.
Sergei Kozlov showed VICE News a copy of the medical report issued at the military hospital in Rostov. It read: "Due to impossibility of evacuation, the lance-corporal was admitted to Military Hospital 1602, three days after injury."
Sergei Kozlov says the Ukraine conflict has divided his family.
The war has divided the family, pushing Sergei and Nikolai's father apart: "[My brother] almost lost Nikolai, but he believes his son sacrificed for the benefit of the homeland, while I think the homeland betrayed and sacrificed him."
Asked whether Nikolai could have refused to cross the border, Sergei blinked away tears. "How?" he asked. "An order is an order."
'Rest in peace within this earth, brother. Cursed be the one who sent you to fight on foreign soil.'
The grinding conflict in east Ukraine has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Hostilities are escalating, but the Kremlin line remains largely the same: no Russian invasion, no incursion, no military involvement. And the families of Russia's dead, maimed and missing soldiers keep waiting for answers.
It is difficult to imagine that a war in the center of Europe could be waged with any semblance of secrecy in 2015. In response to Russia's denial of its troop presence in Ukraine, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Russia "might have gotten away with this before invention of cameras."
But despite international condemnation, dead soldiers, and the invention of cameras, domestically, at least, Russia arguably has gotten away with its undeclared war. Only a quarter of Russians believe their troops are fighting in Ukraine, according to a December poll by the independent Levada Center, in which 77 percent of respondents said they didn't think Russia had any responsibility for the bloodshed.
Tough international sanctions and tumbling oil prices have cost the ruble nearly half its value against the dollar. Yet contrary to the predictions of Western policy-makers, this hasn't seemed to weaken Putin's position. An Associated Press-NORC poll released in late December found that 81 percent of Russians continue to support their president.
Back in Podsolnechnoe, Natasha is still mourning her son. She is sitting on the edge the couch, hunched with grief, hands fidgeting in her lap.
"I could have kept him from the Army, I could have paid the bribes — everyone would have understood," she said, her face creasing with sorrow, then bitterness. "But I thought he needed to become a man and so I let him go." Moments later, she added: "No, the army is supposed to be responsible for every soldier."
Natasha oscillated between disbelief and despair. One moment, she was filled with fury with the military and government: "I want to shout at the whole country that my son is dead. I want everyone to know where he was killed." The next, uncertainty and fear took hold. "I am giving you this information but I'm afraid — people might come here, who knows what they will do."
Sergei was laid to rest beside his father, in a plot overlooking a large field. Sunflowers will bloom there in the hot summer months, but during the Russian winter, there is only barren soil as far as the eye can see. There are no plaques commemorating his service, no inscriptions detailing the war in which he served. Natasha wants her son awarded a Hero of Russia medal, "but they only issue that to those killed in war," she said, sighing heavily. "And there is no war."
The funeral was a quiet affair. The only official present was the captain who brought Sergei's body home. Natasha says the family of another Russian soldier killed in Ukraine came to pay their respects. Seeing her distress, the father of the slain boy pulled her aside. "Don't listen to anyone, Natasha, our sons are heroes — real men," he told her. "Live with this thought. And for now, keep quiet."
The closest thing to a public acknowledgment was relegated to the internet, where a friend of Sergei's posted a farewell message. It read: "Rest in peace within this earth, brother. Cursed be the one who sent you to fight on foreign soil."
Putin, when questioned on Russian troops in Ukraine in his annual end-of-year press conference, again claimed the fighters were "volunteers… following the call of their heart." But Sergei Andrianov was an active-duty serviceman who was likely following the orders of his commanders when a piece of shrapnel to his heart took his life.
"This is very painful — not just because of my son but all of these guys who were killed," Natasha said. "What did they die for? And why are their deaths not being acknowledged?"
Follow Lucy Kafanov on Twitter: @LucyKafanov