Russian President Vladimir Putin has long claimed, in the teeth of pretty overwhelming evidence, that Russia is not a participant in the civil war that has been going on in eastern Ukraine since shortly after Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine’s neighboring Crimean peninsula last year.
Photos of Russian equipment, the capture of Russian soldiers, even social media posts by Russian soldiers geo-tagged to Ukraine, have been brushed off by the Kremlin as either fake or evidence that a few Russian volunteers, out of solidarity with the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine, had voluntarily crossed the border to fight.
But an apparent mistake by a Russian business newspaper last week, identified by Ukrainian news service Novy Region and later reported on by Forbes, seems to reveal that not only has Russian participation in the conflict been officially sanctioned, it has also been particularly bloody.
Last week, the newspaper Delovaya Zhizn (Business Life) published a relatively dull-seeming piece about military salaries and how much the government anticipated paying for them in the coming year. It read like an unremarkable report on government spending until the end, when under a subhead, “Payment soldiers participating in military actions in Ukraine in 2014 – 2015” it revealed what appears to be the human toll on Russian troops engaged in Ukraine.
“[T]he Russian government made an important decision on monetary compensation to servicemen who took part in the hostilities in the east of Ukraine,” it began.
The report went on to detail payments made to the families of soldiers killed in action there (3 million rubles, or about $45,300 at today’s exchange rate) and for those disabled (1.5 million rubles, or about $22,650.)
The fact that the Kremlin appears to be compensating the families of Russian soldiers injured in eastern Ukraine was surprising on its own. But the report’s final line, laying out the magnitude of those payments, was the real shocker. By the end of February of this year, it reported, the Russian government had paid out death benefits to the families of more than 2,000 Russian soldiers, and disability benefits to more than 3,200.
The original report on Delovaya Zhizn was published on or before August 22, as an archived version of the newspaper’s website shows. However, by August 24, the article had been altered to remove the details about soldiers killed and injured in Ukraine.
It is, of course, possible that the details laid out in the Delovaya Zhizn article are completely specious. However, it would be an exceedingly strange thing for a newspaper to invent such figures, particularly at a time when the Kremlin’s control over public discourse in Russia is more complete than it has been since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The withdrawn report also lends more credibility to scattered reports of Russian families receiving the bodies of their dead children from the military, often bearing wounds that could only be sustained in combat. Rather than a clear explanation of what happened, according to a powerful story reporter by Vice News earlier this year, they are told that the soldiers died not in Ukraine but in an unspecified “point of temporary dislocation.”
In May, after pushback from Russian military families began gaining media attention, the Kremlin changed Russian law to make the death of Russian military personnel, even during peacetime, a state secret. That means discussing such deaths – even if the victim happens to be your own child – is a crime punishable by imprisonment.
If there have indeed been more than 2,000 Russian deaths and 3,200 serious injuries, that would dramatically increase the toll of the conflict as recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier this month, the UN reported that total deaths in the conflict were about 6,800.
The Ukrainian Army has been accused of dramatically understating its casualties as well, meaning the total death toll in the conflict Russia claims not to be participating in is likely well over 10,000 and counting.