Russian state media RIA Novosti named 13 “French mercenaries” who were supposedly killed in a strike on Kharkiv, citing a French NGO called SOS Donbass which claims to be in contact with French nationals in Ukraine,
The problem is – the NGO isn’t what it claims to be, and those listed weren’t really dead.
An informed source familiar with the soldiers listed said that while the names were legitimate – albeit contained transcription errors, all other details had been fabricated.
The RIA Novosti report said a Jan. 17 attack on a “temporary deployment point in [Kharkiv] for foreign fighters” killed at least 60 soldiers fighting for Ukraine, noting that most of them were French nationals. Russia has been unable to provide evidence for these claims at the time of writing.
An NGO called SOS Donbass – not to be confused with the similarly named Donbas SOS – said it had received a list of names of French fighters who were supposedly in Kharkiv at the time from “activists, partisans who are monitoring the situation and sharing information” on the day of the publication.
“This is an incomplete list of French mercenaries in Ukraine. The most important information – alive or dead, military rank, and so on – will be distributed later, as well as other names,” said Anna Novikova, the head of SOS Donbass who holds dual Russian-French citizenship.
Both the French foreign ministry and the Kharkiv region governor denied Russian claims that “French mercenaries” have been deployed in Ukraine.
France’s foreign ministry said it did not employ guns-for-hire in Ukraine and called Russia’s claims “another clumsy Russian manipulation.”
Kharkiv region governor Oleg Synegubov said there were no military targets in the area, noting there was no such thing as a “foreign fighters’ base.”
An observer group called All Eyes on Wagner said Russia hit residential, energy facilities and medical facilities instead of the alleged “French mercenaries.”
While the Russian MoD is claiming it killed “French mercenaries” they actually hit residential, energy facilities and medical facilities. This statement widely amplified by media with little checks takes place while France’s announcement to deliver more SCALP missile [#infowar].… https://t.co/lLCIcSqaiq— alleyesonwagner (@alleyesonwagner) January 17, 2024
An informed source, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid “complications” with his unit, said he was familiar with the names listed. He said that while they were in fact French nationals who had joined the Ukrainian military at one point or another, he said he’s certain at least some of them were alive at the time of writing.
He added that those named were not present in Kharkiv at the time of the incident – and some had already left the Ukrainian military at the time of the incident.
He said that Russia likely found the names in a Telegram group called TrackANaziMerc, but the names contained transcription errors as the propagandists were unaware of how French names are spelled.
The channel was used by those with a pro-Kremlin view to hunt down foreign fighters in Ukraine, and the source pointed towards the potential involvement of Nicolas Cinquini, a former French policeman fired in 2020 who was active in the group and might have leaked the information through his access to the French database.
Kyiv Post is unable to independently verify Cinquini’s involvement.
Another leak may have come from the Main Police Department of Ukraine’s Ternopil region, where a cache of documents for foreign fighters was leaked in November and also shared in the TrackANaziMerc group – this might also explain the transcription errors.
If this is the case, Russia will only possess the names and birthdates of those individuals.
The source suspected Russia’s claims to be a wider plan to force those being named to disclose themselves by debunking the report. Most of those named have little to no social media presence, unlike many of the remaining 300 or so names leaked in November.
SOS Donbass’s Credibility
The credibility of the French NGO listed in the report is also questionable.
While the report said the group worked with “[French] compatriots” inside Ukrainian-controlled territories, a quick search has demonstrated the group’s deep ties with Russia and its pro-Kremlin views, which render the claims unlikely.
Anna Novikova, the head of the organization, frequently shares pro-Kremlin posts on Facebook, including a post that read “Donbass is the heart of Russia. Let's achieve victory together.” during a pro-Russian rally in Paris.
Another video circulating on the internet showed the group’s participation in organizing the memorial to Daria Dugina, daughter of Russian ultranationalist figure Aleksandr Dugin who was assassinated in August 2022.
Coupled with the limited information available, it is likely the NGO received the names by way of pro-Kremlin channels similar to the group mentioned.
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