In his address to Russia’s Federal Assembly on Feb. 29, President Vladimir Putin announced the launch of his “Time of Heroes” program which was a mentoring scheme designed to prepare suitable veterans of his so-called “special military operation” for future leadership roles. Putin said these were “the country’s true elite” who, in the future, should “lead regions, enterprises, and the largest public projects.”

The independent Russian news site Insider said that one of 83 candidates selected for the first tranche of the program, was an airborne forces officer Nursultan Mussagaleev. According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Mussagaleev was the commander of the reconnaissance platoon of Russia’s 104th Airborne Assault Regiment during the 2022 six-week occupation of Bucha, a town near Kyiv.

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Following the liberation of Bucha evidence was found by the Ukrainian authorities of mass murder, torture, executions, looting and rape. The SBU, using photo, video, media and social network material, identified Mussagaleev as being involved in these crimes along with a captured Russian serviceman, who had served in Mussagaleev’s unit. The captured serviceman said that the officer had been responsible for kidnapping, torturing and then executing a 29-year-old local resident.

According to the Russia’s Izvestia news site, the then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awarded Mussagaleev the Gold Star medal in June 2023. The medal confers the title “Hero of the Russian Federation.” The accompanying citation claimed that the unit under his command had destroyed 19 enemy vehicles during a two-hour battle.

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The former SBU Colonel who was arrested on charges of exceeding his authority after organizing an unsanctioned 2022 attempt to get a Russian pilot to defect failed.

The SBU has also identified other participants of the “Time of Heroes” project, whose conduct during their service during the war in Ukraine was, to say the least, unsavory.

The 83 candidates include Sergei Kuzminchuk, who commanded the air assault battalion of the 155th separate guards marine brigade of the Pacific Fleet, which suffered horrendous casualties while fighting in the Chernihiv region and were suspected of crimes against civilians.

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Another is Boris Dudko who was deputy commander of the 124th separate tank battalion of the 76th guards airborne assault division, who participated in attacks on Kyiv, Izyum, and Popasna, after which they had responsibility for “cleansing operations” in Bucha. Dudko was pictured standing behind Putin at Russia’s Victory Day parade this year.

Two more selected for the program, are Gold Medal holders Vladislav Golovin and Zaur Gurtsiev, who participated in the battles for Mariupol. Others include Artem Zhoga, the former commander of the “Sparta” battalion, now the head of the People’s Council of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and several more Russian officials who fought in Ukraine.

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