Russia's Ministry of Defense has confirmed the first casualty in Syria since Russia launched airstrikes four weeks ago, claiming that a serviceman committed suicide during a rest period while stationed there.
Russian government-owned news outlet Sputnik News reported that the serviceman worked at the Hmeimim airbase as a technical expert, and that an argument with his girlfriend may have spurred the suicide.
Reuters later confirmed through his family that the serviceman was Vadim Kostenko, who was 19and deployed to Syria on September 14. Vadim's battalion commander visited the family in person and told them Vadim hung himself on Saturday, October 24.
But Kostenko's family does not believe the military's version of the events, saying Vadim had seemed happy just days earlier, according to Reuters.
"We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well," Alexander Kostenko, Vadim's father, told Reuters.
"I will never believe this version (suicide)," Svetlana, Vadim's mother, told Reuters. "We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. (On Saturday) he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed," she said.
Reports of Vadim Kostenko's death first surfaced through Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of bloggers focused on tracking Russian military deaths. The team found a social media post about Kostenko and later confirmed his death through different social media accounts.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting a Russian defense ministry official, reported last week that one Russian soldier had died from "careless handling of weaponry," in Syria, but there has been no confirmation that the official was referring to Vadim's death.
In May, President Vladimir Putin declared that all military deaths during special operations would be classified as state secrets, even during times of peace. Russia announced it would launch airstrikes September 30, claiming that it would only target the Islamic State, a claim that has since been disproved.