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Ukraine's ‘Russian terrorists’ How Kiev captured Yerofeev and Aleksandrov

Meduza
Photo: Maxim Pab / TASS / Scanpix

Earlier today, on April 18, a court in Kiev convicted Russian nationals Yevgeni Yerofeev and Alexander Aleksandrov of illegal border crossing, illegal weapons possession, and involvement in a terrorist organization. Yerofeev and Aleksandrov were detained last year in the Donbas, and Ukrainian officials say they are active intelligence agents in the Russian military. Defense attorneys claimed that Yerofeev and Aleksandrov were fighting as volunteers with separatist forces in Luhansk. Prosecutors demanded 15-year sentences, and the court ultimately gave each man 14 years in prison. The news agency MediaZona studied the materials of the case, in order to reconstruct the events of May 16, 2015, when Yerofeev and Aleksandrov were captured.

Before their capture, Yevgeni Yerofeev and Alexander Aleksandrov took part in a battle on May 16, 2015, near a bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river, a couple of kilometers from the city of Shchastya, near Luhansk. The river marks the line of demarcation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, according to the Minsk Accords. 

At roughly 2:30 pm, in trenches not far from from the bridge, Ukrainian Sergeant Vadim Pugachev encountered a group of scouts under the command of Captain Yerofeev. The two groups shot at one another, and Pugachev was seriously wounded, but he managed to radio others about the attack, calling in Ukraine's 92nd army brigade. Responding soldiers reportedly spotted three enemy combatants in uniform and started shooting.

“They opened fire when we started to leave. I was hit in the arm. By a bullet. The bone shattered. I fell and lost consciousness. When I came to, I started to crawl away, but I didn't get far. The soldiers came out from the trenches. They didn't kill me. They detained me, and provided me with medical aid,” Yerofeev says of his capture.

Along with Aleksandrov, who was wounded in the leg, Yerofeev was taken to a nearby hospital. The case records say a sniper rifle was discovered near Yerofeev, when he was detained. (The rifle was a Vintorez, which is used for special purposes by various military units, including Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate.) Ukrainian troops also found a mobile phone near Aleksandrov. According to investigators, the phone contained selfies of Aleksandrov posing with his weapon, and text messages he'd written to his wife.

Ukrainian officials claim the men are combatants in the 3rd brigade of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate, which they say arrived on Ukrainian territory on March 26 and was quartered in Luhansk. (The Ukrainian officer who made the capture says Aleksandrov identified himself accordingly, saying he was from a unit based in Tolyatti, Russia.

About an hour after the battle near Shchastya, at 3:44 pm, Ukrainian intelligence agents intercepted a telephone conversation between someone using the callsign “Fan” (allegedly this was Konstantin Nopolskikh, a major in the 3rd brigade) and someone using the name “Dolphin.” In this conversation and others that were wiretapped, Ukrainian officials say the two men discussed one injured scout and two who had gone missing—saying they'd either managed to leave or been taken captive. In the conversations, it also became clear that the scouts in question (the men who went missing and those sent to find them) were Russian citizens. “Fanat” warned the Luhansk separatists to avoid shooting at scouts in the field searching for their comrades. 

While these operations were underway, Yerofeev and Aleksandrov were in a hospital near Shchastya, unaware of any search effort. While in custody (and in front of video cameras), they shared with Ukrainian military officials more details about their mission. In particular, Aleksandrov told his captors that they were part of a group made up of 220 other Russian intelligence soldiers based in Luhansk.

Both men subsequently recanted these videotaped remarks, saying the confession was made under duress. Their lawyers argue that they're not Russian soldiers but combatants in the “people's militia” of the Luhansk People's Republic, fighting in Ukraine as volunteers. The court was also presented with an official certificate from Russia's Ministry of Defense, showing that Yerofeev and Aleksandrov had both resigned from active military service at least a month before their capture in Ukraine.