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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Something was wrong’: Ukrainians lament deaths at medal ceremony

In a photo provided by Kuznyev family shows, Major Serhiy Kuznyev in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, in 2022.

By Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova

The family of Maj. Serhiy Kuznyev sensed something was wrong. He was not answering his phone. Officers in his unit refused to provide information on him.

It was only by scrolling on the internet that his daughter, Anna Kuznyeva, 19, found confirmation that her father had died, in a photograph of his body lying amid a dozen or so others in a village in southern Ukraine.

He had always told his family that he was deployed far from the front. “To us, he always said, ‘All is good,’” Kuznyeva said in a telephone interview. “He wanted to protect us from worrying.”

It took two days, she said, for Ukraine’s military to formally inform Kuznyev’s family that he had died in a Russian missile strike Friday, an episode that has provoked anger and criticism as a lamentable, and preventable, tragedy.

The strike killed him and 18 other officers and soldiers in the 128th Separate Mountain Infantry Brigade, cutting them down as they congregated to receive medals, standing in plain sight.

The incident has drawn rare criticism of Ukraine’s armed forces from soldiers and Ukraine’s civilian leadership as a blunder with deadly consequences. The Ukrainian government is investigating the deaths, and the commander of the brigade has been suspended pending the inquiry’s results.

Critics have pointed to a hidebound mentality in officers who organized a ceremony straight out of a Soviet-era military handbook, in which soldiers stood at attention before a table spread with medals and removed their helmets. Many appeared to have died from head injuries.

The gathering stood out for its transparency. Although fighting as a national army, and despite many successes, Ukraine’s forces have had to maneuver behind their own lines almost as partisans, always in secret, seeking to avoid large formations.

But as the military expanded after Russia’s invasion by drawing in reserves, many older officers — trained in the regimented, Soviet traditions of military affairs — entered service. Medal ceremonies have long been a traditional component of the Soviet and Russian system.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an address to the nation Sunday about the missile strike, suggested it signaled the need for reform within the military, lamenting the role played by lingering Soviet customs in Ukraine’s army.

“It is a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Zelenskyy said. Ukraine, he said, would seek changes to “the Soviet legacy and the terrible bureaucracy that prevents Ukraine and many in our defense forces from realizing their potential.”

The militaries of Russia and Ukraine are linked by ties that include their use of the same artillery and other weapons systems. And despite attempts by the government of Kyiv to adopt NATO standards, these ties persist in important ways, according to analysts.

Monuments in town squares in both countries commemorating the dead from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan attest to relatively recent military experience of fighting for the same cause.

Up until 2014, when Russian-backed proxy forces occupied Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, troops on both sides were often friends. Both countries’ armies rely on railroads for logistics.

“They were all brothers in arms until the fall of the Soviet Union, and even afterward, they did remain pretty tight,” said Samantha de Bendern, an expert on Russia and Ukraine who is a fellow at Chatham House, a think tank based in London. Common traditions persisted.

It was unclear how the Russians identified the gathering as a target. The unit held the ceremony on a holdover Soviet military holiday, the Artillery and Missile Forces Day, that Ukrainians have continued to celebrate; that could have tipped off the Russians to watch for congregating soldiers.

A soldier familiar with the ceremony said word had circulated in the unit that a ceremony was planned, and that the best soldiers would receive medals, raising the possibility that a spy betrayed fellow soldiers.

Alternatively, Russian drones might have simply spotted the gathering.

With such a prominent event planned, the soldier said, it would have been hard for the Russians to miss it. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the strike.

However the Russians learned, the missiles and blasts they produced were devastating, killing some of Ukraine’s best soldiers. Unverified photographs from the scene showed bodies strewn about.

Many Ukrainians, in online messages, echoed Zelenskyy’s lament about the Soviet-era practices that contributed to the deaths.

“A small Soviet army will not defeat a big Soviet army,” Yuri Hudimenko, the head of a political party, Democratic Ax, and a soldier in the Ukrainian army, posted on Facebook. “We don’t have a choice. We have to change or die.”

Another soldier who said he served in a unit in southern Ukraine posted a video of himself condemning the commanders of the 128th Brigade for recklessness, but said the problems of overly strict adherence to military regiment and tradition are broader.

“Such a trouble can come to every brigade,” the soldier said in the video, posted on Instagram under his nickname, Casper.

“I have a question for such officers,” the soldier said. “Do you have victory here already? Is the war over?”

The strike killed some of Ukraine’s most experienced soldiers, after so many have already been lost in fighting.

Kuznyev, for example, had fought in the war in eastern Ukraine for years and survived one of the fiercest engagements of that conflict, the encirclement of a Ukrainian unit in the battle for the town of Debaltseve in 2015. Between stints serving in the military, his daughter said, he had worked in a nongovernmental group helping veterans, and was a published landscape photographer.

Kuznyev had volunteered Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded. That morning, his wife had packed his medical kit and he left, Kuznyeva said.

He hadn’t told his family much about the war, often saying he was deployed in central Ukraine, far from the front, when in fact he had fought in pitched battles in the Kherson region last fall, and in Bakhmut last winter.

“I was even complaining to him about some small trouble in my life, without realizing he was in the Bakhmut trenches,” Kuznyeva said. “I was sending him pictures of our cat, and he was making fun of them.”

Kuznyev’s wife became worried through the day Friday because he was not answering his phone. “She felt that something was wrong,” Kuznyeva said. An officer the family reached said he would call back with information, but he never did. Both daughter and wife suspected the major had died.

The daughter eventually found the photograph on the internet of her father, with part of his head missing, she said. “It was clearly him,” she said. “I got all shaken up and started crying.

“He was full of life and very active, always searching for different scholarships and possibilities for me,” she said. Her father, she said, had been “big and tall.”

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