Olga Bozhyeva has a great interview with the protagonists of the Lipetsk premium pay extortion scandal. Essentially, Major Smirnov and Senior Lieutenant Sulim detail a farcical investigation, and what looks like a wider-ranging criminal conspiracy. The entire Air Forces, not just the Lipetsk center, are in serious damage-control mode.
Bozhyeva introduces the piece as showing that even elite units suffer from corruption, and points out the center’s chief, General-Major Aleksandr Kharchevskiy, gave Vladimir Putin a test flight, and led combat aircraft that overflew Red Square on Victory Day 2010. The two young aviators told her they had to talk immediately because time is against them.
Smirnov described his experience with the extortion scheme. He said those refusing to pay got reprimands that could be used to force them out, and, with many officers being cut already, this threat was especially serious. Or, he says, higher-ups would simply take away their “400” pay, and give it to someone willing to pay tribute. Smirnov says the extortionists also collected as much as 240,000 rubles a year from conscripts. He also recalled seeing Sulim’s draft complaint about corruption, and agreeing to support the younger officer. Their ex-squadron commander, Major Yevgeniy Kubarev, joined them.
The VVS sent Deputy CINC, General-Major Viktor Bondarev to investigate, but, as Smirnov says, everyone who wanted to see him had to talk to the center’s Chief of Staff, Colonel Eduard Kovalskiy (the scheme’s ostensible organizer), Kharchevskiy, the new squadron commander (a Kovalskiy crony), zampolit (and bag man) Colonel Sergey Sidorenko, and FSB man Major Zatsepin first. Afterwards, Kovalskiy already knew all details of what they told the VVS investigator. Kovalskiy apparently talked to the father of one officer in an attempt to pressure him against supporting Sulim and Smirnov. The squadron CO reportedly told one officer, if he talked openly, he’d be the first dismissed.
Sulim confirmed that his father is a VVS one-star general. Bondarenko asked Sulim, don’t you think they’ll dismiss your father after this? Then Sulim sums it up:
“So it’s hardly possible to talk about any real observance of legality. Now you understand why we came to you [Bozhyeva].”
Sulim and Smirnov don’t accuse Kharchevskiy, but Smirnov says he’s afraid the extortion scheme goes higher, up to the VVS Glavkomat, because, if this involved just one colonel and one air group, it would’ve been cleared up quickly.
Smirnov says he and Kubarev have sent their families away from Lipetsk, as a precaution.
At the end, Bozhyeva asks Sulim and Smirnov what results they want from the interview.
“Our goal is for a fair, independent commission, a fair prosecutor to come.”
“Not from Tambov, but from Moscow. That is, those people to whom I, in essence, wrote on the Internet. Otherwise, they’ll choke all of us here with these kinds of investigations. We’re standing before such a precedent now!”
Smirnov then says, “All the Armed Forces are watching us.”
Then with the wisdom of someone twice his age, Sulim concludes:
“If they manage to strangle us now, then those men that rob officers will lose their fear completely, and those they rob, — they will finally lose their faith in their commanders. The consequences will be terrible.”