By Maria Tsvetkova
ORENBURG, Russia (Reuters)
When Vladimir Kabunin signed up as a private military contractor, he saw a chance to make a wage much higher than any he could earn in his provincial Russian hometown
Happy to be able to support his wife and son, the ex-police officer left Orenburg, nearly 1,500 km (940 miles) southeast of Moscow, and joined pro-Russian rebels fighting government forces in east Ukraine, a family friend and a relative told Reuters.
When fighting subsided there, he went to Syria to serve as a field medic with troops under Russian command, they said.
Kabunin was killed in Syria this year and his body was sent home, they said. But the government does not recognise he was in Syria, so he was buried without military honours and nothing on his grave shows he was killed in action.
Kabunin, who was 38, was one of hundreds of military contractors secretly recruited by Moscow for combat operations in Syria since Russia’s military operation began there in 2015, according to people familiar with the deployment.
According to a Reuters tally based on accounts from people who knew the deceased and local officials, at least 28 private contractors have been killed in Syria this year, and Russian consular documents seen by Reuters suggest the figure may be much higher.
The government denies recruiting and sending private military contractors to fight abroad
The defence ministry did not respond when asked about Kabunin’s case and the role of contractors in Syria, and has said previous Reuters reports on the contractors are an attempt to discredit Russia’s mission to restore peace to Syria.
But over two years, Reuters has spoken to dozens of family members, colleagues and friends of military contractors who have been killed in Syria.
Those familiar with the deployment say the contractors are under government command and have helped turn the tide of war in favour of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while hiding the scale of its military involvement and losses.
The fact that Kabunin and others like him are willing to sign up for such missions shows the Kremlin can draw on a large reserve of fighters who, as long as they are well remunerated, are willing to risk dying in the shadows.
Kabunin followed a path taken by many contractors: service in the military or security forces, a return to civilian life, a struggle to make a living, then a chance to make decent money fighting secretly for Russia, in Ukraine and then Syria.
Family members of Russian contractors say that in Syria they were paid up to $6,500 per month, which exceeds Russia’s average monthly wage more than 12 times.
“If you quit law enforcement bodies, you have only one way (choice) – to become a mercenary,” Vasily Karkan, a classmate of Kabunin at school, told Reuters.
Kabunin was shy as a child until he started kickboxing classes, Karkan recalled. The sport became a life-long hobby.
Kabunin obtained a degree in medicine and also studied law, but followed in the family footsteps by joining the police.
In 2010, he found a new job in a prison, where his wife also worked in a tuberculosis hospital. Kabunin’s role was to work with prisoners to obtain information and gather intelligence on planned escape attempts or potential unrest, but he left that job in 2012.
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