A retired Russian general has reportedly been killed after his plane was shot down over Ukraine, with colleagues saying the 63-year-old returned to the frontlines because he “could not stand aside” from the war.
Kanamat Botashev, who would be the highest profile pilot to die in the conflict so far, was blown out of the skies on the weekend, according to the BBC.
It was unclear how the retired general, a known daredevil, came to be flying an apparent combat mission over Western Ukraine.
On Tuesday Russia announced it would debate abolishing the upper age limit on joining the military, which is currently 40. Moscow has lost about a third of its combat force and at least 190 planes since the war began.
Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that a Russian Su-25 fighter jet had been shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Three former colleagues of Botashev on Tuesday told the BBC’s Russian service that he had died in that attack.
He was known to fly an Su-25.
Fighterbomber, a popular Russian Telegram channel for military pilots, ran a statement on Sunday mourning an unnamed “commander”.
“Goodbye, commander.. The sky claims its best men. Today it has claimed you.”
A comment underneath identifying the victim as Botashev was quickly deleted.
“Today Kanamat died! Popasnaya district, 8:25 ... The first call of the NAR-s (unguided aircraft missiles - BBC ), the second - bombs ... Stinger at the exit from the attack, an explosion in the air and ... That’s it,” it read
Other members of the forum continued discussing his death using the initials KHB.
According to the Russian ministry of defence, it takes eight to ten years and $8 million to train a “sniper pilot”, a ranking attained by Botashev.
‘Simply couldn’t stand aside’
Discussing how Botashev might have been brought out of retirement, a former subordinate officer of his told the BBC he “simply couldn’t stand aside”.
The veteran pilot was known for reckless behaviour.
He was put on trial for crashing a military jet on an apparent joy ride in 2012, the year of his retirement.
The indictment said Botashev arrived at a friend’s military base and asked for a ride in a fighter jet that he was not qualified to handle.
The general crashed the aircraft after taking the controls and trying to perform aerobatics. The crew safely ejected from the Su-27, which fell just a hundred metres from the nearest village.
Botashev worked in an amateur aviation association in St Petersburg after his retirement.
Neither Russia’s defence ministry nor the aviation association have confirmed his death.
The incident was reported amid intense speculation that the Kremlin is reviewing its options to boost manpower in Ukraine.
‘Mobilisation by stealth’ of conscripts
Vladimir Putin was reportedly mulling full mobilisation earlier this month but apparently stopped short of adopting what would be a politically fraught escalation.
However, young men in Russia have been approached by conscription offices in recent months in what analysts have described as an attempt at “mobilisation by stealth”.
Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament is on Wednesday is expected to consider a new bill that would scrap age limits for contract soldiers.
Currently, only Russians aged 18 to 40 and foreign nationals aged 18 to 30 are eligible to sign contracts with the Russian armed forces.
The lawmakers who introduced the bill said it would make it easier for Moscow to recruit medics and engineers, who can take years to gain the required level of expertise.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Monday that in the three months of the invasion, Russia has suffered a similar death toll to its nine-year war in Afghanistan.