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Do Svidaniya, Holyoke: Stitching Together Puello-Mota’s Russian New Year…


Отправление из Холиока (created with images from Wikipedia, NEPM & Warwick Police)

A little over three months ago, freshly relieved of his duties as a city councilor in Holyoke, Wilmer Puello-Mota was preparing for trial or a plea. Until he wasn’t. The state of Rhode Island was prosecuting him for possession of child pornography. Having ostensibly self-detonated an earlier resolution to the case, he was facing a much harsher sentence. Two days before he was to appear in court, his lawyer would much later confirm, Puello-Mota skipped town.  

United States Customs documents show he flew from Dulles International Airport in Virginia to Istanbul. Some weeks later, a video set Holyoke astir. An American, his faced blurred, claimed to be in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian city that had just fallen, raising an American flag. Paper City politicos gossiped it was unmistakably Puello-Mota. As speculation flared, which another video would confirm, the ex-councilor was becoming an object of attention in Russia, too. 

By all accounts, Puello-Mota fled to avoid justice in Rhode Island. As his lawyer indicated to The Boston Globe last week, the 28 year-old saw his life as essentially over, in part because he would need to register as a sex offender. Whatever his motives, the Russians saw a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, certainly for its domestic audiences. But there is international potential, too.

Earlier this month, Puello-Mota’s lawyer, John Cicilline, told The Boston Globe that he spoke to his client on January 8. Cicilline said he had called the former Holyoke official on January 8 to remind him he was due in court the next day. Puello-Mota replied he had fled the country and joined the Russian army. 

Puello-Mota’s absence was immediately apparent to the court and Rhode Island issued a warrant for his arrest. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, however, there was no direct way to get to Russia. Commercial flights between Turkey and Russia continue, however. At the end of February, WWLP and The Republican would report, Puello-Mota had boarded a plane to Istanbul on January 7.

By the time Springfield-area media were reporting Puello-Mota’s apparent flight destination, he was probably already in Ukraine. On March 6, The Republican reported on the video that had sent Holyokers abuzz. They recognized the voice.

The speaker uses English, but there are Russian subtitles. He praises the “incredible” people around him. He explains he raised the flag ostensibly to encourage people to see Russia as the hero in this tale.  

“We’re here to plant the US flag as a sign of friendship and support for all the things that people are enduring here,” the speaker says in the video. Without a hint of irony, he comments on the destruction in the city.

“I mean you look around Avdiivka and you see what’s happening, you see the destroyed buildings, you see these are people’s homes. We need to support Russia,” he continues. “I hope people understand and look at independent facts, right? Do your own research. Do your own homework. Find out what’s really going on here.”

Rhode Island prosecutors acknowledged the video could be him on March 11. Still, the provenance of the video was unclear.  There were clues, though. 

Pyatnashka Brigade

The badge for the Pyatnashka Brigade with the Abkhazia flag on the left side and the former Donetsk People’s Republic flag at right. The brigade is now part of the Russian armed forces. (via Wikipedia)

The Ukrainian city had completely fallen to Russia on February 17, amid heightened Russian attacks and depleted Ukrainian weapons stocks. Its filming had to take place afterward, assuming the video was authentically in Avdiivka.  

Overlaid on the video were two symbols. Both belonged to the “Pyatnashka” (Fifteen) International Brigade. Originally composed of volunteers from Abkhazia, a breakaway region of the country of Georgia, it formed under the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the Russia-controlled separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. Like the DPR, Abkhazia is a puppet region of Moscow.

The symbol on the right in the video, a hand, echoes the flag of Abkhazia. The one of the left refers to the Pyatnashka’s Wild Division in the Donbas, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. In early 2023, months after the DPR formally merged with Russia, the Pyatnashka joined the Russian Armed Forces. Radio Free Europe has reported the Pyatnashka Brigade was heavily involved in Avdiivka. Kyiv has accused the Pyatnashka Brigade specifically of committing war crimes. 

If the Abkhaz symbols were not enough, the video’s initial appearance on Russian social media also connects it to the Pyatnashka Brigade. The Telegram channel of the brigade’s “military correspondent,” Elena Sokolova, posted it on February 23. (Telegram is a messaging and social media app used heavily in Eastern Europe).

Her post refers to the soldier by his callsign “Вил” or Vil. Some machine translations render it as “Wil.” The post states that “Vil” served in the United States armed forces, including in Afghanistan. Puello-Mota had served in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a technical sergeant until this 2020 arrest became public in 2022.

Russian media have identified Sokolova as the brigade’s military correspondent (read: propagandist). Her page on VK, short for VKontakte, a Facebook-esque Russian social media app, also identifies her as a military correspondent for the Pyatnashka International Brigade. Two days later, the Pyatnashka Brigade’s VK profile shared Sokolova’s post with the video of “Vil” in Avdiivka. Indeed, Sokolova’s original post, sometimes with attribution, sometimes without, was copied across numerous accounts on VK and Telegram. 

However, Sokolova’s posts on Telegram and VK were not her only contribution explaining what “Vil” was up to. 

Around early March, in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a newspaper the Kremlin owns, Sokolova describes “Vil” as working in an unmanned aerial vehicle unit. She also claims another soldier said “Vil” destroyed two Starlinks, presumably referring to ground-based equipment for the satellite-borne Internet service. Many Russian outlets amplified the story, either by aggregating or outright copying the Gazeta‘s report, which the paper itself reposted multiple times. 

But unlike that earlier video, a second, slicker production was underway. 

On April 3, Agentstvo, an independent Russian media outlet, reported that multiple official Telegram channels were posting a video of an American signing up for Russian military service. Identified only as “Vil,” he described being in Avdiivka and claimed Americans don’t really know what is going on in Ukraine. The Agentsvo report identified “Vil” as Puello-Mota. 

The video shows him at a military recruiting office in Khanty-Mansiysk in Siberia. It begins with background music and staged shots of him entering the facility. Other independent Russia-focused outlets, including Meduza, The Moscow Times and Novaya Gazeta Europe, followed Agentsvo’s reporting. 

Agentsvo traced the first post to Yuri Kotenok, a pro-Russia military blogger. Kotenok’s Telegram post—and the copies that spread on Russian social media—states that “Vil” was to receive 745,000 rubles (roughly $8,000 at current rates) for signing up and $150,000 (a little over $1,600) every two months. The post also said he had helped “liberate” Avdiivka.

Acknowledging the difficulty of war, before correcting himself to use Russia’s preferred term, “special military operation,” Puello-Mota confirms he was in the unit that once fell under the DPR.

“I was lucky to be there with people from Pyatnashka, with people from the International Brigade, and you know, we did our work. We did our job. We did what we were supposed to do,” he says in the video, which also has Russian subtitles. “Everybody’s just been so kind, so supportive and just ready to help me move forward, and I want to help them now continue the mission.”

Within days, American media had picked up the story. In Holyoke, there was no longer any doubt. Puello-Mota was in Russia.

Puello-Mota also appeared in Russian state media. However, in their stories, the American was still just “Vil.” Arguments & Facts, a newspaper the government of Moscow owns, was the rare Russian publication to bother noting “Vil” never gave his real name. As with the social media posts and Sokolova’s interview, these reports were often repetitive, focusing on the same elements of an interview with Puello-Mota apparently filmed the same day as the propaganda video Agentstvo identified. 

One regional outlet, Urga-News, included additional photos, including one of an American passport next to a form. The text on the form is Puello-Mota’s name in Russian. Another website quotes “Vil” saying Americans are exposed to anti-Russian propaganda, but “the truth breaks through.”


Transliterally Puello-Mota! (via

Puello-Mota does not detail what he thinks is propaganda. However, Russia invaded Ukraine without any cause in 2022, eight years after Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and started conflict in the Donbas.

Other pieces of the interview aired in a segment on TV Channel Yugra, another regional outlet. According to a translation of the segment’s transcript, Puello-Mota praises his translator and indicates he seeks Russian citizenship. He discusses being in Avdiivka alongside others in his brigade. (The Arguments & Facts article notes several nationalities were represented in Pyatnashka.)

It is not, however, actually clear what “Vil” is doing or even if he is in any meaningful way serving in the Russian armed forces. When the first video emerged, pro-Ukraine chatter on social media doubted that he was in any type of fighting, highlighting the clean condition of his uniform. Beyond the face value of the Khanty-Mansiysk video, it is not even clear what he signed up for. 

When Puello-Mota disappeared, but before the first video surfaced, Holyokers and Valley outlets noted his Facebook page changed to list his location as Moscow. His employer was now the Russian Ministry of Defense (written in Cyrillic letters). His profile picture appears to show him in fatigues with a drone. A VK account that ostensibly belongs to him also puts him in Moscow, not Khanty-Mansiysk, where he signed up for the armed services.

Not everything lines up, which is common in Russian propaganda. So far as propaganda goes, Puello-Mota’s Ukrainian and Siberian adventures are for Russian audiences. He mentions Serbs, historically allies of the Kremlin, who encouraged him to sign up. Puello-Mota asserts he experienced no discrimination based on his skin color in the Pyatnashka Brigade. These all feed into well-established domestic narratives about Russian allies and superiority. 

But why Russia? Why support attacking Ukraine? It is unclear.

Puello-Mota had aligned himself with the conservative bloc on the Holyoke City Council. Perhaps he was always considerably more right-wing than any of his ex-colleagues. He speaks in measured, even stoic, tones in the Russian videos and never denigrates Ukraine directly. However, a Twitter account that has his likeness in its avatar had liked or concurred with anti-Ukraine rhetoric on the platform.  

If it is his, it is still active. The account retweeted an April 12 tweet mocking Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s April 11 address to Congress. Aside from dismissive responses to journalists, Puello-Mota has not responded to Western media queries. Certainly, he may resurface on Russian outlets, whenever the Kremlin has a use for him. Indeed, it is possible that this could be the extent of his military service.

No substantive clues about what Puello-Mota is actually doing over there have surfaced since the Khanty-Mansiysk video. It is not because he is silent, though. Despite his Russified Facebook page, he is still active there a bit. Over the last few weeks, people have tagged him. Sometimes he replies, clearly cognizant of being abroad. Yet he does so nonchalantly, as if he is still just down the street in South Holyoke.