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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Deaths Blamed on Work, Not Hazing

An investigation into a series of deaths at a military unit guarding a weapons-grade plutonium facility in the Krasnoyarsk region found that too much work, not hazing, was largely to blame, an official said Tuesday.

The probe, carried out by a military commission from Aug. 8 to 11, found that the Interior Troops at the Zheleznogorosk Mining and Chemical Combine were not being given time to relax and to interact with the outside world, Interior Troops spokesman Vasily Panchenkov said.

Unit No. 3377 has registered 17 servicemen deaths since 1998, according to a Kommersant report confirmed by Panchenkov.

Of those, 11 servicemen committed suicide, two died in hazings, two were killed in retribution for hazings and two were accidentally shot, according to the Aug. 5 report.

In the latest death, conscript Ivan Shinkarev shot himself on Aug. 3 after his girlfriend wrote that she was getting married, investigators said. The death appeared to be the last straw, and the commission headed by Interior Troops Deputy Commander Sergei Stupchy was dispatched to investigate.

While the commission was visiting the unit, a serviceman fell out a window and suffered serious injuries. The serviceman, Private Dmitry Krupkin, 19, has linked the Aug. 8 fall to pressure from his superiors to testify that no hazing had occurred in the unit, Kommersant reported Tuesday.

Unit commanders are calling the fall an accident.

Panchenkov said no recent accidents or suicides could be blamed on hazing, in part because the unit had recently doubled its efforts to look out for first-year servicemen.

"The commission concluded that an excessive workload on personnel was the main factor," Panchenkov said by telephone.

First-year servicemen grappled with extra work when second-year servicemen were discharged, and they had to wait for new conscripts to arrive, he said, citing the commission's report. Also, the unit lacked recreational facilities and telephones for conscripts to call home.

Panchenkov said the unit had unsuccessfully tried to reduce casualties by, among other things, asking a Russian Orthodox priest to lead a special service and inviting a high school student to live in the barracks for two weeks for a reality show, which was broadcast on a local television channel.

The commission recommended that the unit adjust its ratio of first- and second-year servicemen to ease the workload and make other personnel changes that would allow officers to monitor conscripts better. The unit will also set up recreation rooms, a special telephone facility and a hotline for servicemen wishing to lodge complaints or speak with a psychologist.

Panchenkov refused to comment on the specifics of the recent deaths and other incidents, referring inquiries instead to military prosecutors. Calls to the military prosecutor's office for the Siberian Federal District went unanswered Tuesday.

Several senior officers, including the unit's commander, will be disciplined, Panchenkov said, without elaborating. Furthermore, all unit officers will be evaluated for possible demotions or discharges, he said.

He denied media reports that the incidents might be connected to the poor mental and physical health of conscripts. The headline on Kommersant's report Tuesday read: "Zheleznogorosk Soldiers Found to Be of Insufficient Quality," while a headline in Gazeta.ru said: "Morons Join the Army."

The unit's conscripts are screened twice, by local enlistment offices and then on the regional level, Panchenkov said.

Zheleznogorosk should serve as a wake-up call, said Gavin Cameron, a security expert at the University of Calgary.

Currently, the best conscripts are usually sent to Defense Ministry units, while the less-prestigious Interior Ministry force often is left with the less-fit servicemen -- even though it guards civil nuclear facilities, said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.