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A vet and the butchers of Bucha

A vet from Russia’s Far East volunteered for the war in Ukraine, ending up in the 64th Brigade — among the killers of Bucha. Here is his testimony

Novaya Gazeta Europe
Novaya Gazeta Europe

Alexey Astashov, April 2022. Photo from personal archive

“I’m ashamed to be a soldier in this unit,” Alexey Astashov, a military medic from the Khabarovsk Region, wrote to our editorial office late at night. Astashov’s reaction followed the release of an iStories investigation, in which a fellow soldier of the 64th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade confessed to the murder of a civilian in Ukraine.

“I heard this story from him personally, but I didn’t believe it at the time — you never know what kind of stories guys come up with,” says Alexey.

Just six months ago, on 25 February, Astashov, 34, head of a veterinary service in the Khabarovsk region, was on his way to a military enlistment office. The day before, he and his fellow medics had watched President Putin’s speech on television, and took his words about the start of the “special military operation” as a rally cry. Astashov initially hoped he would be taken on as a medic, but was also ready to go as a machine-gunner — “to beat the Nazis and protect the Russian world.”

In early April, he arrived in Ukraine as part of a reinforcement unit, and soon discovered that the so-called defence of the “Russian world” was more like a civil war, and that his own superiors were treating soldiers as if they were expendable. At the end of July, Alexey returned to the brigade’s permanent deployment point in the village of Knyaze-Volkonskoye near Khabarovsk and handed in his papers, refusing to participate in the “special operation” any further.

How did an ideologically motivated volunteer turn into a vocal opponent of the special operation — one publicly ashamed of his unit? Alexey Astashov personally described his transformation to Novaya Gazeta. Europe.

FROM THE EDITORIAL TEAM:

Novaya Gazeta. Europe understands that this article may have serious consequences for the interviewee, up to and including criminal prosecution. We suggested several times that Alexey change his name in our article, but he always refused. Alexey read the article before publication and once again asked us to keep his “name and position as they are.” “I assume all risks and responsibility,” Alexey wrote. Clearly, this decision was one of principle.

New Boots and a Machine Gun

“At the first formation, the commander ordered me to give my machine gun to someone else, and he made me commander of the casualty collection and evacuation section,” Alexey explains why he, a veterinary doctor with a course in tactical medicine under his belt, signed a contract with Russia’s Ministry of Defence as an ordinary machine-gunner.

He shows his military ID on our Google Duo call: a spread with a photo and a page showing his military specialties. The document reads that he began his career as a machine gunner in the 64th Brigade.

Astashov was familiar with resuscitation and anaesthesiology — not only as a vet, but also as a tactical medic. He was trained in bandaging wounds and stopping bleeding, meaning he had all the necessary skills to provide first aid to the wounded. But he did not get the medical posting he wanted — formally, this was due to his “lack of specialised medical education and certificate in medicine.” According to Alexey, he wasn’t even upset by that.

Alexey Astashov, April 2022. Photo from personal archive

Astashov had brought a shipment of medical supplies to the Donetsk region as part of a humanitarian mission in 2015 and 2016. “In my two weeks there I saw the shelling, heard the complaints of people who needed help. I understood that the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation, as Ukraine officially calls the 2014-2018 war in Donbas — editor’s note) is legally the same as Russia’s counterterrorist operation in Chechnya, but it was still an act of aggression by Ukraine, and people were suffering!”, Alexey explains.

That is why Putin’s words about launching a military operation to “protect people who have been bullied for eight years” provoked such a fervent response.

Astashov was ready to defend the “Russian world” at least as a mortarman or a machine-gunner. And yet he hoped that it would be the wounded he was dealing with.

Even before signing the contract, Astashov knew that the 64th Brigade had issues with medics: formally, the unit was fully staffed, but many medical posts were held by servicewomen — often one’s daughter, wife or mistress. Women were not recruited for the “special operation,” and it was impossible to replace them with male military medics at short notice. For Alexey, that was that.

He bought a uniform at his own expense and paid five thousand rubles (€85) for Belarusian combat boots, as the army could not find a pair of their own. At the beginning of April, a military-transport plane delivered the recruits to Belarus, where they joined the units of the 64th Brigade that had been withdrawn after battles near Kyiv. “The brigade was shattered, there were losses. The lads said they all had someone dead or wounded,” says Alexey. From Belarus, they were taken by train to the Belgorod region, before heading south to cross the border into Ukraine.

Alexey arrived with a brand-new machine gun and then, on the orders of the brigade commander, handed it over to another soldier, Yury, with whom they became friends. “He died and my machine gun was lost somewhere,” says Alexey.

As a squad leader, he took command of a “Linza” armoured field ambulance to evacuate the wounded from the front line to the nearest hospital. In other military ambulance crews, the functions of doctor or paramedic were performed by officers — the medical service chief and the medical company commander. According to the staff, these posts were to be held by sergeants and warrant officers — but they remained in Khabarovsk.

Baptism of Fire

“They couldn’t get him out of the forest for three hours. He had lost so much blood by the time they found him! I gave him an intravenous injection, I treated him all the way [to the hospital], but still we couldn’t save him — the wounds from the cluster ammunition were terrible,” grieves Alexey, recalling his first personal loss of his friend Yury Lutsenko, a 30-year-old from Khabarovsk and a father of two.

Yury was killed on April 17. Their reconnaissance team came under fire from a Ukrainian “Uragan” (“Hurricane”) multiple rocket launcher system. Yury was seriously wounded, but heavy fire prevented his evacuation. Only three hours later, fellow soldiers on an APC — an armoured personnel carrier — brought the wounded man to an evacuation point, where Astashov’s “Linza” crew was on duty. Their task was to provide the wounded with first aid and get him to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible — time was of the essence, as the “golden hour” necessary for Lutsenko’s survival had already passed.

“Yury was very strong, he held out for a long time, he passed away literally 10 minutes before he reached hospital. His wounds were very serious,” Alexey explains.

Astashov’s listed brief information about the wounded and dead soldiers in a field notebook, where he finds a page dated April 17:

“Lutsenko, fifth motorised rifle company, ‘200’ — combined MBI, haemorrhagic shock, pain-related shock,” he reads.

An MBI is a mine blast injury, while “200” refers to “Cargo 200” — an Afghan-era Soviet code word referring to dead soldiers. Similarly, “300” is used to mark the wounded.

April 17 in Astashov’s notebook lists one “200”, four “300”, and mentions five lightly injured (two concussions and three gunshot wounds) who refused to be admitted to hospital. As squad leader, Astashov reported the details of those discharged to his superiors — so that they wouldn’t be declared a deserter or MIA (“missing in action”).

Astashov with weapons. Izyumsky district. Photo from personal archive

On the day the brigade first went on the offensive and came under Alexey’s first artillery fire, the ambulance’s crew took more than 30 wounded to hospital. 12 people died in one evening. “Such a shock to the body: both physical and psychological,” Alexey recalls.

He calls that day his “baptism of fire.”

“I did what a doctor should do: I carried out resuscitation measures, I anaesthetised people, prepared them for transportation — I plugged ‘holes’ with haemostatic agents, applied bandages, stabilised their condition, and then took them to hospital,” he says about his duties.

Despite Astashov performing his duties as a surgeon-resuscitator, he was paid his salary as a machine-gunner — approximately 31,500 rubles (roughly €528).

Combined with combat pay and a monthly two-salary bonus, Astashov’s earnings were similar to that of a Moscow ambulance doctor during the pandemic — the latter, however, avoided the artillery fire.

When the crew left a month and a half later to repair their vehicle in the Belgorod region, at the assembly camp Astashov made an application for an officer’s rank and position. According to him, army officials assured him he would be promoted to platoon commander with the rank of lieutenant as soon as he reached the unit’s permanent station in Knyaze-Volkonskoye.

In a month or so, Astashov flew to Khabarovsk and approached the personnel chief. “I was frankly told to fuck off with the phrase: ‘You have a short-term year-long contract, sign for another three, then, maybe, we’ll promote you.’” The university-educated machine-gunner then filed an application for the post of squad leader.

Recounting his attempts to get a position in line with his duties, Alexey repeats that he did not join the “special operation” for the money. “But the deception — no matter where it came from — was depressing,” he says.

The Spoils of War and Humanitarian Aid

“Eighty percent of our APC was loaded with looted medicine,” says Alexey, his voice filled with the pride of a professional that managed to get hold of short supplies and provide his patients with the best possible care.

In June, after fierce fighting near Slavyansk, the brigade began to run out of bandages. Here too, medicines that had been seized from Ukrainian army units came to the rescue.

“Hemostatics, painkillers, Portuguese ibuprofen and paracetamol — all of it was like manna from heaven. Almost all the bandages were American, Israeli, French, or Polish,” Alexey shares.

Trophy first aid kit. Photo from the personal archive of Alexei

Until then, the field medics had received all first aid and resuscitation supplies from a Russian field hospital. But then, due to logistical problems and the PMH’s relocation to assist the Centre, there were disruptions.

The brigade had been out in the field since January — first in exercises, then in combat. The troops began to show illnesses, including relapses in chronic diseases. “Haemorrhoids and toothaches are probably the most harmless,” Astashov recounts, not without sarcasm. The Russian Ministry of Defence almost never supplied drugs to treat illnesses. Even the hospitals received them as humanitarian aid from the public.

Aid for Russia’s military started being collected after the start of the offensive on 24 February. Residents of the bordering Belgorod region were the first to join the effort, followed by people from other parts of the country. Organisers of the aid rallies published lists of things that the military asked for on social networks: hygiene products, boots, rifle scopes, quadcopter drones and thermal imagers — the lists varied, but almost always included medical supplies, which were purchased by volunteers and delivered to a military camp near Belgorod.

The 64th Brigade had been to one of them, Urazovo, twice — when it entered Ukraine and on a short-term rest. Both times the military ambulance was swamped. Antibiotics, antivirals, painkillers, creams, ointments — right down to baby powder. “Everything came in handy, thanks to the people,” says Alexei.

With the start of the fighting — when the wounded began to arrive — there wasn’t enough room in the unit’s ambulance.

Astashov took some supplies to the field hospital, and part was distributed in Izyum to local residents when he stopped at the market near the “blueish” Holy Ascension Cathedral on Moskovskaya Street.

“We bought cigarettes and milk and people saw that we were in an ambulance, although our red cross was plastered over. A woman with a baby in her arms came up and asked me if I had any ibuprofen for her child’s fever.

As soon as I gave her the medication, a crowd gathered around the car,” Alexey says.

The locals asked for blood pressure and heart medication, metamizole and aspirin — in 10 minutes, the crew had handed out two boxes full of supplies.

Alexey went into the church and lit a candle, but quickly left, as the city was being shelled. The field hospital, stationed in Izyum’s Second Lyceum, was also repeatedly hit. Astashov’s military ambulance brought the dead there, as it was the only place equipped with refrigerators for storing corpses.

The other wing of the lyceum housed the commandant’s office along with the FSB. According to the Ukrainian media, the building also housed a prison, and was later destroyed by a Ukrainian missile strike.

Alexey believes that the red crosses on Russian vehicles, piled-up blood-stained stretchers and a failure to camouflage may have served as a red rag for the enemy. The hospital of the 321st Special Medical Group — also stationed in Izyum — was also repeatedly shelled. Astashov’s crew repeatedly came under fire near both medical outposts.

The exposure led to the red crosses on Russian ambulances being covered up, with the medics ordered to "keep a low profile" in March. On arrival to the combat zone, Alexey tore off his red cross from his sleeve, but always proudly wore a chevron with the emblem of 64th Brigade — out of principle. By that time it had already been named among the Russian units that could have been involved in the war crimes in Bucha.

Alexei Astashov in uniform on Red Square. Photo from personal archive

Confusion

“I was interested in Bucha, and I asked fellow soldiers where they had been and what they had been doing around Kyiv,” says Alexey.

Astashov claims that no one admitted to being in Bucha — only Andriivka, Makarivka and Borodyanka.

Reports of looting and massacres of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha appeared in the global press in early April. The BBC, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, the AP and other media outlets released stories with images of those killed between 5 and 31 March, when Russian troops were stationed there. Bodies were found in the streets, courtyards and basements.

Locals in Andriivka told the Ukrainian media that they found selfies and photos taken by a Russian serviceman in a smartphone “requisitioned” from them. That serviceman would later turn out to be 64th Brigade corporal Daniil Frolkin.

“I heard the story from him personally, but I didn’t believe it — you never know what kind of stories guys tell,” Astashov confirms.

“And what did he say?”, we asked him. “He said he shot a man for the photos on his smartphone on the order of [brigade commander] Omurbekov.”

Astashov would later find out that some of the brigade’s servicemen were in Bucha after all. A few months later, Frolkin himself would tell journalists that he had killed a civilian.

On April 18, Putin renamed the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, giving it the honorary “Guards” prefix — a badge of distinction widely used in Imperial Russia and the USSR.

During an offensive on Velyka Kamyshevaha in the Kharkiv Region, Astashov’s unit seized a Ukrainian field medical station. Among the papers he found were lists of Ukrainian personnel — Alexey took a look out of curiosity, realising that almost half of the Ukrainian soldiers had Russian surnames, simultaneously recalling how many of his comrades-in-arms had Ukrainian surnames.

“I was looking at lists of Russian surnames when I was in Kharkiv — not Luhansk or Donetsk. I was on my way to the ‘special operation’ as I wanted to liberate the DPR and LPR. Confusion began to set in. I realised my imperial ambitions and that I was essentially taking part in a civil war,” Astashov said.

Then, he admitted, he had a “psychological breakdown.”

Cargo 200, 300 and 500

“I feel sorry for everyone, but doubly so when such a highly qualified individual dies. For Christ’s sake, you can’t treat people as if they’re expendable!”, Alexey continues to grieve about fellow doctor, Moscow Medical Academy graduate Mikhail Kuzin.

Kuzin served as a surgeon in a Russian field hospital, but was often involved in the evacuation of the wounded from the front line due to a shortage of medics. On 3 June, he and two other military medics evacuated the wounded on an MT-LB (“multi-purpose light armoured towing vehicle”).

“It’s a tin can with 3mm of armour — a fridge box is safer,” Astashov describes angrily. The vehicle came under fire and struck a mine while attempting to escape. The crew and the two wounded perished.

Mikhail was posthumously decorated with the Order of Courage. A photo of the military doctor was placed on a huge stand in the brigade’s hometown of Knyaze-Volkonskoe. “Let us Honour the Memory of the Fallen,” read the headline, with photos of 44 servicemen of the 64th Brigade — all recipients the Order of Courage who died in Ukraine and in the Donbas. A photo of Mikhail Kuzin hangs in the bottom row on the left.

A stand with photographs of the dead soldiers of the 64th brigade. The picture was posted on Alexey's page in VKontakte

Alexey posted a photo of the stand on his VKontakte social media page (it has since been taken down, but the photo has been reposted on Ukrainian online forums — editor’s note).

“Irrecoverable combat, medical and psychological losses effectively halved the headcount of the brigade,” Oleksiy said, referring to the brigade’s strength as of 24 February — the start of the invasion.

The “medical” losses are the ones incurred due to illness, while the “psychological” ones refer to “refuseniks” who have declined to take part in the “special operation.” The latter are marked with the number 500 — the so-called “five hundreds”. Alexey has no clue as to how many “five hundreds” there are in the brigade — likely several dozens. Astashov says that refusals are also handed in by regular servicemen and officers deployed back in the unit’s base back in Khabarovsk.

According to Alexey, the brigade suffered the heaviest losses — both dead and wounded — in the Kyiv Region, in battles for Zavody and Velyka Komyshuvakha in the Kharkiv Region, Bohorodychne in the Donetsk Region and the “Sherwood Forest,” — the dense green area between Izyum and Sviatohirsk nicknamed after Robin Hood’s legendary home.

“In April, after the attack on Zavody and Velyka Komyshuvakha, the brigade had to pull out. It still had losses from the attack on Kyiv. [Brigade commander] Omurbekov reported to the that the brigade was at full strength, that it was ready to perform any task, and that there were no refuseniks,” Astashov recalls.

The command appreciated the readiness to carry out orders at any cost: Omurbekov was named a “Hero of Russia,” and promoted to the rank of colonel, while the brigade became “Guards.” Other lower-ranking commanders did not care about losses either.

The commander of the 3rd Battalion once sent a medical platoon into the offensive — it was knocked out of action in its entirety. “Major G. said: ‘You medics are the same as the infantry, go and attack!’ The whole platoon was wounded,” — says Aleksey. The commander himself was wounded in that battle and was later awarded the Order of Courage. In their conversations, the soldiers criticised the major for his unprofessional conduct.

The brigade was beaten up further in the offensive around Slavyansk, to the south of Izyum, but there was no replenishment of personnel or equipment. In June, unit commander Azatbek Omurbekov was seriously wounded himself.

After those battles, the brigade had its first “five hundreds” — a number that increased further still after the assault on Bohorodychne and fierce battles in the “Sherwood Forest.”

“There was no normal interaction between the motorised rifle units and artillery. The radio stations were shit, there weren’t enough quadcopters and drones,” Alexey replies as to the reasons for the losses and miscalculations. Astashov dismissively states that “he didn’t study at the General Staff [Academy]” — regardless, his evaluation is based on experience.

On reflection, he names another reason behind the Russian army’s failures: treating humans like cattle.

Insults and Grudges

“When I went to Khabarovsk, to our unit’s base, our chief medical officer made me promise that I would return to the front. Then I found out that he had signed a refusal waiver himself!”, Alexey laments.

Given his frustrations with command, Alexey speaks with reverence of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO): “a medical academy graduate” and “a professional dedicated to his service.” The CMO was constantly recruiting — looking for doctors or other individuals who could provide first aid to soldiers. In other words, he was doing the work for the officers who couldn’t staff the unit. The shortage of medics was so bad that the CMO could have ended up as a paramedic in Astashov’s evacuation unit — sitting in the “tin can,” the highly vulnerable MT-LB.

Astashov's correspondence with a colleague about doctors. Screenshot

In “Sherwood Forest,” the CMO and the other officers were awarded the Suvorov Medal (awarded to ground troops for courage in combat — editor’s note), but after refusing to take part in the war any further, the medal was taken away. “Apparently, the medals were handed out without an order on paper, and medals can only be taken away by a court order,” Alexey assumes.

All the unit’s medics were presented with the Medal “For Life Saving.” Astashov’s crew alone carried 174 wounded soldiers from the battlefield in three months of combat, all of whom survived. Their papers, however, were lost — either by the brigade, or the 35th Army, or the Eastern Military District.

According to Alexey’s observations, refusals to take part in the “special operation” are more often provoked not by a dejected mood or fear for their lives, but by the command treating their soldiers like cattle.

“The guys were told that they were going on a training exercise, but it turned out that they had been lured into a ‘special operation’ without anyone asking for their consent. They’ve been on training exercises since January, they’re tired, they’re constantly promised rotation,

the National Guard are rotated for some reason, but we’re not,” he laments. “They were told that all the wounded — even the slightly wounded, for example, those who were shell-shocked, are entitled to compensation. People refused to be hospitalised and continued to fight, and we, doctors, would write reports that the soldier received medical help, so that they could apply for compensation later. But they received no compensation — many of them had two or three concussions and shrapnel wounds!”

In his opinion, his comrades-in-arms are writing refusals because as are tired of false promises and lies. Astashov also has a grudge of his own.

When the personnel department in Knyaze-Volkonskoe refused to give him the rank of lieutenant and the post of squad leader, he filed a complaint about the unit commander.

Ten minutes before leaving for his second assignment, he was issued a military ID as “medical instructor”. Despite multiple assurances, Astashov was not given a command post, but he was promised to be sent to a quieter but no less “nauseating” place — to the “522nd Centre for Receiving, Processing and Dispatching of Casualties” in Rostov-on-Don.

The Road Home

At the end of July, Alexey left Khabarovsk for his second assignment. On the way, he found out that no orders had been given for him to travel to Rostov-on-Don, and that he was flying to his final destination in Kherson together with the reinforcements.

On board, Alexey observed the reinforcements — the “semi-conscripts” born in 2002 and 2003. He admitted that the pain and death of these young men was the hardest to watch: “Many of them were saved, but I’ll never forget the ‘cat’s eyes’ of the boys who weren’t.”

“Cat’s eyes” was an expression Alexey, a vet, had picked up from other military medics during his deployment. The term refers to a post-mortem phenomenon where the pupil stops responding to light.

“You look into a person’s eyes, right into their soul, or they look at you, into your soul, and they pass away in front of you, letting go of their spirit — that’s the hardest thing to watch. I realised I would either die or go nuts if I closed the eyes of boys like that again,” Alexey explains.

In Crimea, he turned around and flew back to Khabarovsk. Two days later he reached his unit and filed a report refusing to participate in the “special military operation.” Astashov is currently being discharged from the army.

At the beginning of August, Alexey returned to work at a veterinary station in the village of Chegdomyn — almost a thousand kilometres from Knyaze-Volkonskoe. Last week, he got a call from his unit and was asked to come in on Saturday, 20 August — as if to sign his discharge papers. When Alexey arrived, he was detained for a “talk” by the FSB and military police, had his phone confiscated and made to write an explanatory statement about his post of the memorial with the pictures of the dead.

The stand itself has disappeared, and Daniil Frolkin’s photo now hangs on the command’s door, warning that he was now the subject of a criminal case.

#war in ukraine #Bucha #medicine
Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.
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