Putin classifies Russian soldiers' deaths. Is it all about Ukraine?

The Kremlin has long denied having troops deployed in Ukraine, despite recurring evidence thereof. Putin's decision to classify information about military casualties during peacetime "special operations" may be meant to end further questioning.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Russian honor guards stand in line prior to a wreath-laying ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow earlier this month.

Military reform activists say it has never been easy to pry information out of the Russian Army, even about accidental deaths or suicides of conscripts during peacetime. Disclosing war casualties has always been strictly illegal.

But President Vladimir Putin put the brakes on a growing public debate over covert Russian involvement in Ukraine's civil war by making it illegal to reveal any information about military casualties during "special operations" in peacetime.

The new decree appears to be a response to the steady accumulation of reports of secret military funerals, said to be of Russian soldiers killed in officially-denied operations to support rebels in eastern Ukraine. The reports spiked late last summer when, many experts say, Russia injected forces to help turn the tide in the rebels' favor against a major Ukrainian offensive. They surged again in February, when rebels handed Kiev forces another crushing defeat around the railroad junction town of Debaltseve.

The Russian military routinely stonewalls any journalists who ask questions about this issue, and mainstream Russian media has shown no appetite for reporting it. But some civil society groups, including several local Committees of Soldiers' Mothers – who have championed conscripts' rights for more than two decades – have made significant efforts to lift the veil of silence on the issue.

"We've always had to fight with the Ministry of Defense for any information about any kind of Army deaths," says Ella Polyakova, head of the St. Petersburg Soldiers' Mothers. "Now it will be much harder. We'll go on trying, of course, because mothers and parents will keep coming to us hoping to find answers. How would we say no to them?"

The issue has kept stubbornly coming back, including regular reports by Russian opposition leaders of secret burials in military cemeteries. Earlier this month Ukraine detained two Russians whom it said were special forces on a reconnaissance mission in east Ukraine on behalf of the GRU, Russian military intelligence. The two men have been at the center of a war of words, with Moscow admitting only that they are Russian "ex-servicemen," and at least one of the soldiers insisting that he was acting under orders.

Colleagues of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov have published his final work, a report entitled "Putin: War," which attempts to document Russian involvement in Ukraine's civil war over the past year, and claims that over 200 Russian soldiers have died aiding anti-Kiev fighters in eastern Ukraine.

"I think people in the Kremlin have grown tired of constantly denying all this, and they've decided to provide themselves with the legal tools to shut down any further attempts to find the truth about Russian operations in Ukraine," says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. "Once these deaths have reached a certain level, it's impossible to keep it hidden. So they're taking simple bureaucratic measures to avoid having to officially address it."

Polls consistently show a majority of Russians support Moscow's policy toward Ukraine, including arming rebels and allowing Russian volunteers to join them. As for current involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine's war, Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center, says that more than 50 percent in a March poll accepted their government's claim that no Russian forces are directly involved. About a third thought Russian troops were in Ukraine, while about 20 percent said they didn't know.

"This is an issue of constitutional rights and freedoms. Information about where Russian forces are fighting should be available to the public," says Lydia Lviridova, head of Soldiers' Mothers  in the Volga city of Saratov. "At one stroke, this decree makes our work almost impossible. The president has closed the last door to truth with his own hand."

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