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Press by
The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Lt. Gen. Lentsov and His Body Double in the LNR
5 years
Four Russian Naval Officers Sentenced for Treason

Yesterday February 18, Ukraine war-watchers were preoccupied with trying to determine whether a man who appeared with the deputy defense minister of the self-proclaimed "Lugansk People's Republic" (LNR), taking Ukrainian POWs out of encircled Debaltsevo was the same person as Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lentsov, a Russian general stationed in the OSCE's Joint Coordination and Control Center (JCCC). The JCCC itself had to be moved north in early February from Debaltsevo to Soledar due to intense fighting.

The blogger @DajeyPetros of Ukraine@War, a long time student of the Russian general's controversial role in Ukraine, was the first to notice the similarity and claimed they were the same person.



The man appears in two videos from the front, appearing to be about 55-60 years old, wearing a battered ushanka (fur hat with ear flaps), and counts off the Ukrainian POWs, then describes for reporters how he had gone to talk them into surrendering.

Shorter versions appeared focusing just on the man, claiming that "Lt. Gen. Lentsov of the RF Armed Forces in Debaltsevo is pretending to be a 'militiaman.'"

 

These videos have been compared to known videos of Lt. Gen. Lentsov in meetings with the JCCC.

Irek Murtazyan of Novaya Gazeta also noticed the resemblance and published a story about this yesterday.

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The men do look strikingly similar but there are several key differences.

First, their voices don't sound alike when the various videos are compared. Lt. Gen. Lentsov has a distinctive lisp and way of pronouncing his "s" that the other man does not. He seems to speak Moscow Russian. The other man has more of a drawl in Russian, but not the accent of Russians native to Ukraine.

Second, while their noses and the lines in their faces and mouths seem similar, the distance between their nose and lips, known as the philtrum, appears different.

Of course, voices can sound different outside versus inside, facial features can be changed by very cold weather, and we are dealing with different camera angles in the videos so it's hard to tell. They might well be the same person.

One argument in favor for saying that the man in the ushanka is the general is that he uses an odd word for a "people's militia" man. He speaks of "our delegation" negotiating with the Ukrainians -- something a man used to moving in diplomatic circles might use. A man in the "militia" might rather refer to his men or his unit.

On the other hand, the man in the hat speaks rather emotionally and also relays a wild tale (translation by The Interpreter):

I convinced them to surrender, so there would not be any bloodshed, I guaranteed them life from our command. The day before yesterday they deceived us. They met with us in the same way, we came to an agreement, but when our delegation left, there was an artillery strike against us, and we had losses, wounded and killed.

[...]

They tied local residents to a fence with barbed wire, and wouldn't let us then shoot at the enemy. They poisoned all the wells, and poured diesel fuel everywhere...

There were numerous people who came out of Debaltsevo and no one else had this tale to our knowledge, and it seems unlikely that the Ukrainian soldiers, very short on supplies, would waste fuel on poisoning of wells, let alone tie human shields to fences that wouldn't be visible any way. And it seemed the separatists weren't disrupted at all in their firing on the town.

This emotional tale seemed unlike what Lt. Gen. Lentsov would say.

The big question then for us wasn't why a Russian general would slip away from his cover position in the JCCC, get into a disguise, and go meet with the rebels whom Russia backs -- and even supervise the offensive against Debaltsevo against Ukraine's forces. That all seems to be a given in Russia's "hybrid" war.

The larger question is why a general who wanted to go incognito and therefore donned a disguise and possibly even changed his speech would then also speak in front of the cameras for the press. Wouldn't the whole point of such an exercise be to stay hidden?

Or was it in fact an even more twisted story of Russians wanting the world to know that they were disguising generals as assistants to deputy commanders -- and would brazenly out themselves as needed?

Novaya Gazeta contacted the LNR to inquire who the man was -- surely they'd be able to identify someone next to their deputy defense minister playing such an important role, negotiating for surrender, and handling the POWs escort from Debaltsevo.

But the LNR came back to Novaya and said they didn't know the man's name, but only knew his call sign, which they said was "Eustace" (Yustas).

That seemed strange - and even more suspect when we recall where we've heard that exact same famous call sign. "Eustace" (full name, "Eustace Alexu") was the work name of the fictional Max Otto van Stierlitz (Shtirlits), a Soviet spy who infiltrated Nazi Germany and had many adventures, like James Bond.

Stierlitz was a character in the 1960s spy novels of Julian Simon, then the hero of a serial film, Seventeen Moments of Spring, popular in the Soviet era. The tag lines from the film inspired numerous jokes that became part of the Russian idiom. When Vladimir Putin ran for president, his image-makers constantly milked his similarity to Stierlitz -- especially given that as a KGB officer he had served in East Germany.

Were the LNR just pulling Novaya's leg?

Maybe they were recalling Stierlitz's famous scene about his plan to "stop the stupefication of the masses."


In the meantime, Lentsov appeared on Russia's state Channel 1 to deny that he had been in Debaltsevo, Global Voices reported.

Lt. Gen. Lentsov said he had not been in Debaltsevo at all (translation by The Interpreter):


"It's the purest lie. All the work that was done today, we went from Mayorsk to Gorlovka, and from Gorlovaka to Donetsk"

He said he was asked to make a rebuttal about whether he was in Debaltsevo, and he added ""I simply physically couldn't have been there today."

Some might not be inclined to believe a Russian general in a "hybrid war," but he had an alibi.

Lt. Andrei Lishchinsky of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the head of the Ukrainian group in the joint group monitoring the ceasefire, vouched for Lentsov in the same appearance on Channel 1, saying that he had been with a group of monitors that went to Mayorsk and had been in Donetsk at noon; at 14:00 he was in a meeting with him; and had met with him again at 17:00.

Mayorsk is about 40 kilometers from Debaltsevo.

The OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission also reported on the JCCC's meetings February 18 in Soledar, mentioning the presence of Russian generals, although it does not mention their names nor mention the rank which Lentsov has, so it's not certain he was at the meeting. Soledar is about 54 kilometers from Debaltsevo, on snowy roads with constant fighting nearby, so it would be an ambitious trip to go from Soledar to Debaltsevo and then on to Mayorsk, then Donetsk (another 53 kilometers) before noon.

There's also the question that such a trip would likely not go unnoticed by other OSCE monitors.


Until "Eustace" is found and both he and the general are seen together, it is unlikely to put this story to rest -- which now has a meta-life of its own, as Aric Toler explains. Add to this Lentsov's controversial past in Chechnya, and the propensity of the DNR and LNR to have numerous Russians fighting along side them, this story became emblematic of an effort many have spent a year on: trying to prove that the masqueraded Russian tanks and troops in Ukraine are really from Russia.

We could also note that this episode wound up distracting from the fact that Col. Vitaly Kiselyev, deputy commander of the "Lugansk People's Republic" and deputy foreign minister is as mysterious as "Eustace" because nothing has been found out about him before last year when he surfaced in a series of promotional films for the "Army of the South East" in the LNR. He was shown taking charge not only of Russian fighters native to Ukraine, but an assortment of volunteers from Southern Ossetia as well as the Russian Federation.

Kiselyev was obviously close enough to the Russian Armed Forces to pick himself up at least four BMP-97 armored border patrol cars (available only from Russia) and train his men on them outside of Lugansk at Base 3035 -- an exercise which we geolocated and reported in January 2015.

While his accent is distinctly local to the Donbass, was he trained in Russia? Was he formerly in the SBU? His cap shows his identification with Soviet-style uniforms (there was a similar cap won worn by Soviet border guards) and the red star of the Communist Party.

In any event, we are likely to hear more from Col. Kiselyev and his aides, as they raised the flag of "Novorossiya" over Debaltsevo yesterday, proclaiming that "yesterday's coalminers and tractor drivers" had defeated a trained army of "fascists." Helping him was a soldier who looked to be from Buryat Mongolia and another who sent greetings to his son at the naval academy in Simferopol.



-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick