The shooting down of a sophisticated Russian Su-25 plane over Ukraine’s Donbas region in May sparked a flurry of questions about the pilot’s death.
Why was a 63-year-old man in the cockpit of such an advanced aircraft?
What was a retired officer who had left the Russian armed forces a decade ago doing on the plane?
Why has another Russian general lost his life in the line of fire? and exactly how many russian generals have died?
Unraveling this mystery tells us a great deal about the state of the Kremlin’s war machine and the human cost of war, even for the highest-ranking officers.
Pilot with a capital P
Major General Kanamat Botashev had been a highly skilled and respected Russian pilot, and despite his rank, advanced age, and retired status, he was back in the air that fateful day.
The BBC spoke to three of his former subordinates, who said that “couldn’t stay away” of “the special military operation”, a term that Russia uses to refer to the large-scale invasion that it launched against Ukraine on February 24.
“He was a pilot with a capital P,” said one of Botashev’s former colleagues. “There are few people on Earth as obsessed with the skies as he is.”
“I will always be proud to have served under you”another added.
But the fact that Botashev participated in the fighting in the Ukraine did not add up, and not only because of his age.
The senior officer was not even a serving member of the Russian Army: he had been fired a decade earlier.
the dead generals
Bootshev is one of several Russian generals to have died in the conflict, and while the exact number is hotly disputed, losing even one general is highly unusual in modern warfare.
By way of comparison, when US Major General Harold Greene was killed by an Afghan soldier in an attack in 2014, his death marked the first time in more than 40 years that an American general had been killed in combat.
Ukraine has claimed that 11 Russian generals have died in the conflict so far. Despite this, some of the reports have turned out to be wrong: three of those who have been declared dead later appeared in videos posted online, disproving the news of their deaths.
of the remaining eight senior officers that kyiv claims to have shot down, so far only four of them have been confirmed dead, while of the another four yet The information has not been verified, but neither has it been denied.
In addition to Botashev, the other three confirmed fallen are:
Major General Andrey Sukhovetsky’s death was announced on March 1. A retired military officer tweeted that Sukhovetsky was shot by a Ukrainian sniper in the Hostomel area, not far from the capital kyiv.
The Ukrainian Army declared Major General Vladimir Frolov dead on April 16, which was confirmed by reports announcing his funeral in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg. The circumstances of his death have not been disclosed.
More recently, on June 5, a Russian state media journalist posted on the Telegram messaging service that Major General Roman Kutuzov had been killed while leading an assault against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. .
Why don’t we know how many Russian generals have died?
The simple answer is that the Ukrainians don’t know for sure and the Russians don’t say.
For Russia, military deaths are considered a state secret even in peacetime. In addition, Moscow has not updated its official balance of casualties in Ukraine since March 25, when it said that 1,351 soldiers they had died in the first month of the war.
In an ongoing research project, using open sources and talking to the families of Russian soldiers, the BBC has compiled a list of more than 3,500 casualtieswith their names and ranks, indicating that the true figure is probably much higher.
Our research also shows that one in five Russian soldiers killed was a mid-ranking or senior officer.
What does all this say?
The proportion of high-ranking officers killed is surprising, but the Russian Army has a large number of high-ranking officers: about 1,300 in total.
Although many of them would never be expected to end up on the front lines, a significant number of generals have found themselves there.
This may be because generals are expected to perform tasks and make decisions that would correspond to subordinates in the armed institutions of other countries, which brings them closer to the front than would be expected.
Western officials have also suggested that the low morale of the Russian troops has forced the Army to launch its heavyweights into action.
Also, a shortage of communications equipment may have increased the danger to these officers, allegedly forcing them to use traditional phones when close to combat, compromising their safety.
Finally, US media outlets claim that Ukrainian military intelligence officers are deliberately targeting the Russian hierarchy with snipers and artillery, and that the US has provided information to Ukraine about their whereabouts.
In the case of Botashev, how did he find himself back in the thick of battle if he was retired?
Bootshev’s career had not been easy: in 2012 he was expelled from the Army after crashing a plane he wasn’t supposed to fly.
He had been placed at the controls of a crown jewel of Russian military technology: a sophisticated Su-27 fighter.
In the Russian Army, authorization to fly a certain type of aircraft is obtained after many hours of special training.
Bootshev was not authorized to fly the Su-27, but he somehow managed to gain access to it. He lost control of the aircraft mid-flight, but he and a companion ejected successfully.
He survived the “misadventure”, but he knew he would have to pay a price.
What made things worse was the fact that this was not the first time he had taken a plane that he was not supposed to fly.
In 2011, he snuck into the cockpit of an Su-34 – an advanced bomber for which he had no license – and took it for an illicit “ride”.
In 2012, a court ruled that Botashev had to pay the state some $$75,000 for accident damage, although the lost device was worth millions. When he died last month, he still owed more than half that amount, according to a publicly accessible state database.
Bootshev was fired from his post and went to work for DOSAAF, a state-run volunteer organization dating back to the 1950s. DOSAAF has ties to the Russian Army and Navy and aims to encourage young people’s interest in everything related to the military world.
The deceased’s pension was about $$360.
With this income it would be difficult for him to pay the large sum he owed to the state, and it has been claimed that at the time of his death, Botashev was working for a private military company.
The Russian authorities deny that these private companies have ties to the state.
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