A Russian soldier said his unit was asked whether they’d be willing to shoot protesters. A Defense Ministry general made him take it back.
Artur Yepifantsev, a former soldier in the Russian military, made headlines when he said his unit had been asked in a survey about whether they would be willing to shoot at protesters. He later took back that report on the Defense Ministry’s television channel. Now, the news and investigative outlet Znak.com has reported that Yepifantsev was forced into that retraction by Major General Viktor Miskovets, the deputy chief of the Russian military’s Wartime Politics Division. According to Znak, Yepifantsev himself provided the outlet with a recording of a conversation between himself and Miskovets. Znak summarized the recording but did not publish it.
On May 21, opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s headquarters in Tyumen published a video that featured a young man in a military uniform. The man’s face was blurred, and he did not give his name. He said that in early 2019, members of his unit were given a survey with a range of political questions. One of the questions addressed the soldiers’ willingness to use armed force against protesters if they were to receive an order to do so. Several days after the video was posted, the young man identified himself to Znak and gave the outlet a copy of his military ID. On May 25, Zvezda, the Defense Ministry’s television channel, posted a video in which the soldier walked back his accusations.
Znak reported that in the audio recording it received from Yepifantsev, he and Miskovets spend about 45 minutes arguing about whether the survey that was given to the soldiers included a question about their willingness to shoot at protesters. The major general argues that the question was worded very differently: “Do you agree that the army should participate in the suppression of national, religious, and social conflicts in society without using armed force?” Yepifantsev then says that question also appeared in the survey but that a separate question included wording about using armed force.
In the recording, Miskovets reportedly continues, “Come on, think about this a little bit. You could never find someone crazy enough to write a question like that. As an a priori matter, such a person could not exist. ‘With your weapons in hand’… Suppression — yes, I agree. It can be forceful without requiring the use of [firearms]. And in our country — in Russia — something like that could simply never happen. And it never will.”
The major general also reportedly argued that Yepifantsev “destroyed the honor of his family, his country, and his commanders” by appearing in the Navalny team’s video. He added that the soldier’s actions qualify as criminal defamation. Pointing to the fact that Yepifantsev publicly discussed serving in Syria in the video (the soldier called Russian involvement in the Syrian war ‘unnecessary’), Miskovets also allegedly said that the young man may have revealed a state secret. The major general called Navalny’s network of regional offices “a destructive structure” and suggested that the politician’s supporters had used Yepifantsev “for their own ulterior motives.”
At the end of the conversation, Miskovets offered to give the young soldier a “chance for everything to be okay” in his life. The first condition for that chance would be reading a prewritten statement on camera taking back what he had said in the previous video. Znak reported that Yepifantsev agreed to read the statement but insisted on skipping a portion that claimed Navalny’s team had paid him to give an interview. Miskovets’s second condition was for Yepifantsev to cut off contact with Navalny’s supporters. In exchange, the major general said, the soldier would be permitted to “quietly resign” from the army.
“After that, if you want to resign, you can resign of your own free will. You’ll be under the protection of the military, of our law enforcement. If you want a passport to travel internationally, you’ll get an international passport. If you want to go to Armenia [where Yepifantsev has relatives], you can travel there without a problem. There will be no disgrace and no prosecution,” Miskovets said. He also promised that any provocations on the part of Navalny’s team would trigger a response involving “the FSB, the police, and all our law enforcement agencies.”
Yepifantsev expressed doubt that the major general would follow up on his promise to allow a quiet resignation. However, after his conversation with the soldier, Miskovets called the flotilla in Russia’s Primorsky region where Yepifantsev was serving and asked the flotilla’s commanders to fire Yepifantsev at the soldier’s own request. Yepifantsev told Znak that he left his unit on June 3 an is now “a simple civilian.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen