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‘I knew it was better not to ask’ The story of two soldier’s wives, a Ukrainian priest, and Russia’s murderous ‘peacekeeping’ brigade

Source: Meduza

Story by Alexandra Sivtsova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s ​​15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade brutally occupied a number of towns and villages in the Kyiv region. A month later, Ukrainian forces liberated the territories, forcing Russian troops to flee. Meduza spoke to the wives of two Russian fighters who went missing during the retreat. Both insisted that their husbands could not have committed war crimes in Ukraine, though their brigade is well-documented to have raped, tortured, and murdered numerous civilians. The women recounted their repeated attempts to get help from the Russian authorities after learning their husbands had disappeared — and the measures they took (and didn't) when that approach proved futile.

In 2008, soldiers from Russia’s ​​15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade — the Russian military’s only “peacekeeping brigade” — took part in Russia’s invasion of Georgia. In 2014, they were involved in the annexation of Crimea. And in late February 2022, they helped launch Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

After swiftly reaching the Kyiv region, the “peacekeepers” and other Russian units began occupying local towns and villages. In Bucha, Borodyanka, Bohdanivka, and numerous other localities, invading troops raped, tortured, and killed civilians. Judging by accounts from a number of witnesses, “peacekeepers” from the 15th Brigade took part in these crimes.

Meduza spoke to two residents of Russia’s Samara region (where the 15th Brigade is based) whose husbands took part in the occupation of the Kyiv region. Both women insisted that their husbands did not take part in war crimes.

“I won’t be surprised if it’s confirmed that Russian soldiers really did kill Ukrainian [civilians]. People vary, just like they did in the Great Patriotic War. There were all kinds of people among our [troops],” said Galina, whose husband, Peter, was a contract soldier in the 15th Brigade. But she quickly added that her husband “could not have killed civilians.”

War crimes in Bucha

‘Our psyche is blown’ Eyewitness accounts of life in Bucha under Russian occupation

War crimes in Bucha

‘Our psyche is blown’ Eyewitness accounts of life in Bucha under Russian occupation

Anna, whose husband, Alexander, was an officer in the brigade, defended her husband as well. “My husband was in a different place [when war crimes were committed near Kyiv],” she said. “He couldn’t have given an order like that! To my great relief, he’s never had to use a weapon for the entire time he’s been in the service.”

In late March, the Russian army fled the Kyiv region. During the course of the retreat, Peter and Alexander’s convoy was ambushed by Ukrainian forces. Peter was killed. Alexander was severely injured. He’s been in Ukrainian captivity ever since.

The occupation

On February 28, 2022, soldiers from the 15th Brigade entered the village of Peremoha in the Kyiv region’s Brovary District. The village sits on the left bank of the Dnipro, about 30 kilometers from Kyiv proper. It’s the closest the “peacekeepers” got to the Ukrainian capital.

That same day, as Ukrainian journalists later discovered, soldiers from the 15th Brigade set up an area for torturing and killing people in a village post office, where they proceeded to murder five civilians. The torture chamber remained in operation until Russian forces fled Peremoha.

In late March, troops from the brigade retreated towards the border through the village of Nova Basan in the Chernihiv region. Not long before that, in early March, Russian troops from other units had shot a 14-year-old as he kicked a soccer ball on a playground. They also took village administration head Mykola Diachenko captive for 26 days along with 20 other men. Several of the men were tortured.

As they retreated through Nova Basan, the Samara brigade came under fire from Ukrainian troops. The fighting was captured by drone-mounted cameras: video posted online shows a Ukrainian tank firing on a Russian convoy. The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ General Staff reported later that out of the 1,800 Russian soldiers from the 15th Brigade who were fighting in Ukraine, about 800 died and about 400 were injured. On May 9, 2022, Vladimir Putin awarded the 15th Brigade the title of “Guards” for their “heroism and courage.”

'You can show him to everyone as a warning'

Peter was 31 when he died fleeing the Kyiv region. He was an experienced soldier. His widow, Galina, spent a long time recounting his career, which included tours in Syria, seven medals signifying various ranks, and “combat veteran” status.

In the weeks before his death, Peter called home from Ukraine several times. According to Galina, though, he wouldn’t reveal exactly what the “peacekeepers” were doing there.

“We had an understanding that it was better not to ask [because] they were listening in. I always worried that he was hungry. He would say, ‘Don’t worry, we found food.’ But nothing about what they were doing or what was happening in the villages,” she said. Subsequent investigations by Ukrainian journalists have found that soldiers from the 15th Brigade forced civilians to cook for them.


‘Everyone knew it was coming’ A dispatch from Russia's Republic of Buryatia, where mobilization is already underway


‘Everyone knew it was coming’ A dispatch from Russia's Republic of Buryatia, where mobilization is already underway

The last time Peter called Galina was on March 29. He died the next day — the same day the couple had once planned to register their marriage. They had been together for exactly three years, and had long considered each other husband and wife. Galina learned of Peter’s death on the following day, April 1.

Anna’s husband, Alexander, was slated to retire in just three years. He planned to buy a small house in a village and “live the simple life,” Anna told Meduza.

Anna and Alexander met in Samara in 2008 at a party. “It was muddy outside that day, but he had the perfect shoes — they glistened like a mirror. It caught my attention,” she recalled.

When she learned he was a soldier, however, she wasn’t pleased. “But he said I needed to come to terms with it,” she said. “And come to terms with it I did.”

For the next eight years, the couple lived peacefully. On weekdays, they both woke up at 4:45 on the dot and ate breakfast together before heading out for work — Anna at a flower shop and Alexander at the military base.

In 2016, Anna was diagnosed with cancer. Though she soon found she no longer had the energy to work, she continued getting up at five in the morning to spend time with her husband.

In early 2022, Alexander learned that he would soon be deployed to the Ukrainian border. Before he left, he warned Anna: “It’s possible that if there’s a conflict [between the self-proclaimed Donbas republics and Ukraine] like there was in Karabakh, we’ll be stationed at the border as a sort of [peacekeeping] presence. And they’ll negotiate between themselves.”

In late February, Anna lost contact with Alexander. Then, in early April, she was told that Alexander had died — but that the Russian military wouldn’t be able to return his body. “‘They burned everything,’” she remembers his commander saying.

That same day, she received a call from someone who claimed to be a Ukrainian soldier. He said he had found her number in Alexander’s duffel bag — and that Alexander wasn’t dead but was being treated in a Ukrainian hospital for critical injuries. Alexander, the man said, had been struck in the head and could neither speak nor see.

“You’re never going to see your husband as he was before. You can come, pick him up, and show him to everyone as a warning. But he won’t see you and won’t remember you,” the man told her.

“I’ll do it. Get him back to me no matter what condition he’s in,” Anna said.

A few days later, Anna said, the self-identified Ukrainian soldier said he was leaving Nova Basan — and stopped contacting her. After that, she managed to get in touch with a Ukrainian priest who lived in the area and was willing to go to the hospital where injured Russian soldiers were being treated. When he called Anna over video and showed her the soldiers in the hospital, she recognized Alexander immediately. “I’d recognize him anywhere!” she told Meduza. “Although he was covered in tubes, and he couldn’t speak or see.”

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Forgotten and festering in the shadow of Russia’s invasion Journalist Neil Hauer says ‘muted great-power diplomacy’ is all that stands in the way of mass ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh

The priest said one of the nurses at the hospital was staying with Alexander “night and day” during his treatment. “She saved him. [...] God bless her,” Anna said. “But I can’t name those people, because I’m worried for them.”

On June 1, the priest told Anna that Ukrainian soldiers had come and taken her husband from the hospital. He didn’t know where they’d gone. “If they haven't killed him by now, they’re not going to,” he said, trying to comfort her. “The important thing is that he gets on one of the [prisoner] exchange lists.”

So far, though, this hasn’t happened. Officially, the Russian Defense Ministry still considers Alexander to be missing — despite the fact that they told Anna he’d been killed. In addition, after Anna's calls with the Ukrainian priest, she got a call from a Russian FSB officer.

“‘You’ve been communicating with the other side. You won’t be receiving any payments,” the agent told her, referring to the compensation payments guaranteed to families of dead and injured soldiers, according to Anna.

After that, she said, Russian authorities threatened her and her family with years-long prison sentences for “communicating with the other side.” She still doesn’t know where her husband is or what state he’s in.

'Different values'

Despite being dead, Peter is also still officially listed as a missing person. Since the spring of 2022, both Anna and Galina have repeatedly written letters to the Russian Defense Ministry and the military prosecutor’s office asking for their husbands’ statuses to be updated. Each request has gotten the same response: “We’re taking a range of measures to find the soldiers and return them home.”

The remaining members of the 15th Brigade are currently in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People's Republic,” which Russia annexed in late September. At the same time, Meduza has learned, the unit has shrunk dramatically since the start of the war — not just because of deaths and injuries, but also because after the retreat through Nova Basan in March, many of the brigade’s members simply resigned from the army.

Anna said she’s not holding her breath for the Russian military to provide any assistance. She told Meduza she wants to go to Ukraine to find her husband herself: “Everything is God’s will. If Alexander survived after that kind of injury, and I didn’t die from cancer, even though they told me I would die in April, then there's a reason we’re still alive. So I’m not scared to go. I’ll have God with me.” Nevertheless, Anna hasn’t taken any concrete measures to plan a trip to Ukraine.

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In March 2022, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry launched a hotline for Russian mothers searching for their sons. Now, though, the hotline is no longer operating.

“We offered for mothers to come to Ukraine to pick up their sons. But nobody wanted to come,” Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko told Meduza. “The mothers were scared. They were told to stay and wait. If anyone had decided to come, we would have organized everything. But it all ended up going through the [prisoner] exchanges.”

Russian human rights advocates told Meduza that the situation has changed dramatically since the First Chechen War. Back then, they said, many mothers of missing soldiers traveled to Chechnya themselves to find their sons; some of them even stayed for multiple years. Many of the mothers had to search for their sons in the middle of an ongoing full-scale war — and lots of them were unsuccessful. Some mothers are still hoping for answers.

“During the Chechen wars, the process [of searching for missing soldiers] wasn’t organized; people had to figure it out themselves. People just weren’t scared. They were scared of losing a human life, but nothing else. Now, there’s nobody preventing mothers and wives from losing their fear, taking that step they won’t take. [But] they’re asking for permission,” said Ella Polyakova, head of the organization Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg. “[But] they shouldn’t ask anyone’s permission. If they care about their son, their husband, they should go.”

She attributes this unwillingness of mothers and wives to go to Ukraine to a “new kind of society” that’s arisen in Russia. Today’s Russians, she said, have “different values than in the 1990s,” and “maternal love” has been “dampened.

The Russian Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.

Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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