June 5, 2014
Screenshots from the Ekho Moskvy website show Maria Turchenkova's photo of the "Cargo 200" truck carrying bodies of Russian fighters across the border from Ukraine to Russia.
President Vladimir Putin, and hence Russia’s state-run mass media, say the war in eastern Ukraine is a “people’s struggle” by ethnic Russians against attacks by ethnic Ukrainian fascists and Nazis backed by the United States. In the Kremlin’s account, the anonymous, often masked, Russian soldiers in this war are heroic local men, not fighters sent in from Russia.

While leaders of the separatists have been clearly identified as Kremlin-allied Russians from Moscow, the ordinary fighters remain hidden. They clearly include some local residents, but also Russian citizens – army veterans, Cossack police auxiliaries, Chechen militiamen and paramilitaries from nationalist groups such as Edinstvo.

Maria Turchenkova, a Russian reporter for the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, this week offers one of the most poignant accounts of the Russian soldiery in this war. Tragically, she and a few colleagues got fleeting access to thirty-one Russian fighters in southeast Ukraine only by escorting their bodies back to Russia. Like the Russians' mission in Ukraine, their return in death was wrapped in secrecy. No officials would show Turchenkova the list of the dead.

But as she reports the bizarre, sad repatriation of these warriors to Russia, Turchenkova does snag the details of one fighter from the paperwork: Sergey Zhdanovich, born in 1966 and, according to Russian website posts that are not officially confirmed, a retired instructor in special operations for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor agency to the Soviet KGB. Zhdanovich’s story is the latest to indicate that a major Russian channel for funneling fighters into Ukraine is the FSB, working through the city of Rostov in southern Russia.

Turchenkova titles her report “Cargo 200,” the military code used by the Soviet Union to label transport operations that carried the bodies of Soviet soldiers home from Afghanistan. Her report is lengthy, but it is worth having on the record in English (below), as well as in its original Russian.