26 Aug 2015

Have thousands of Russian soldiers died in Ukraine?

A Russian website publishes what appear to be official figures showing that more than 2,000 soldiers have died fighting in eastern Ukraine, as Moscow insists its regular forces are not involved.

Graves of anonymous pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine (Reuters)

A Russian news website, Business Life (Delovaya Zhizn) printed a story entitled Increases in Pay for Military in 2015, which contained details of apparent compensation payments made to the families of soldiers killed “in eastern Ukraine” and to servicemen who have suffered serious injury.

The Kremlin has consistently denied that regular Russian forces are operating in eastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian government has been fighting pro-Russian separatists since April 2014, in the face of mounting evidence.

Excerpt from Business Life story

Government figures?

The Business Life story said that as of 1 February this year, compensation payments had been made to more than 2,000 families of dead Russian soldiers and 3,200 personnel with grave injuries.

It said the Russian government approved payments of 3 million rubles (about £28,000) for bereaved families and 1.5 million roubles (£14,000) for soldiers left with a disability.

So-called “contract fighters” would be paid 1,800 rubles (£16) for every day spent in the conflict zone, it said.

The paragraphs containing these figures were mysteriously deleted after they started to attract attention, but a Ukrainian website, Novy Region, saved an early version of the page and splashed on the news.

If true, the story would be the first evidence of the Russian government admitting that its regular forces are fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the highest estimate yet published of the scale of Russian losses.

Boris Nemtsov rally (Reuters)

Nemtsov dossier

At the time of his assassination near the Kremlin in February, the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was compiling a report that alleged hundreds of Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine, only for their deaths to be covered up by the authorities.

He wrote: “From the very beginning of the conflict the Russian authorities were carefully concealing the information about the killed citizens of the Russian Federation on the territory of the Ukraine, and especially the military servicemen of our country, who participated in the fighting.

“However, it was impossible to hide this information completely.”

Nemtsov’s sources told him the families of some soldiers killed during a Ukrainian army offensive in the summer of 2014 were being paid 3 million rubles in compensation – the same sum mentioned in the Business Life story.

The payments were said to be one reason why relatives were reluctant to criticise the Russian government publicly or draw attention to the deaths – an accusation also made by the Russian non-governmental organisation, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers.

Nemtsov said men killed later in the conflict had been officially dismissed from Russia’s armed forces before being sent to Ukraine in the guise of “volunteers”. Their families were not compensated for their deaths.

His report also alleges that mercenaries and volunteers fighting for the separatists often had links with Russian special forces, adding: “The recruitment, armament, financial support and transfer of the Russian ‘volunteers’ to the territory of the Ukraine were mostly organized with the direct participation of the Russian authorities.

Dead soldiers named

Despite the apparent reluctance of soldiers’ families to speak out, some Russian personnel apparently killed while fighting in Ukraine have been identified by journalists.

Investigative journalist Ruslan Leviev tracked down the graves of three young Spetsnaz special forces soldiers and used evidence from social media to place their unit in a separatist-controlled part of the Donbass region of Ukraine.

His team reported that some of the soldiers’ relatives had been warned by the authorities not to talk about where they had died, calling it a “military secret”.

Unidentified men, believed to be Russian soldiers, in Crimea in March 2014

Unidentified men, believed to be Russian soldiers, in Crimea in March 2014

Open secret?

Military analysts like Dr Igor Sutyagin of the Royal United Services Institute have listed several Spetsnaz units operating in Ukraine, along with details of other airborne, armoured and artillery units.

Dr Sutyagin estimated that there were more than 10,000 official Russian soldiers in eastern regions of Ukraine by March 2015, as well as the tens of thousands of personnel known to be stationed in the Crimea.

The Ukrainian military has also listed specific units is says are active in Ukraine.

The commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Viktor Muzhenko, was widely quoted by Vladimir Putin and others in January when he said there was no firm proof of Russian army units fighting in the east.

But by April he said he had “confirmed the involvement of regular forces of the Russian Federation” and named a number of motorised rifle brigades and airborne regiments.

Kiev has also captured a number of men it says are Russian soldiers.

Two alleged special forces operatives detained in Ukraine in May told OSCE monitors they were “members of a unit of the armed forces of the Russian Federation” and had been deployed in Ukraine before, the OSCE special monitoring mission said.

Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Putin U-turn

President Putin has previously denied Russian forces were involved in the military takeover of Crimea in March last year, before later admitting he personally sent troops into the peninsula.

At first he described the unidentified armed men who seized control of the region as “local self-defence units”.

But at a later press conference Mr Putin said: “We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in south east Ukraine. Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defence forces.”

In a big-budget Russian TV documentary in March this year, the president said he personally ordered the military takeover of Crimea, though he denied there was a plot to annex the region permanently.

Are Nato soldiers fighting on the other side?

The counter-allegation that western troops are secretly fighting in Ukraine against pro-Russian forces has also been made, not least by Mr Putin.

In January the Russian president said Ukraine’s armed forces were really “a foreign Nato legion” – a claim swiftly dismissed as “nonsense” by Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

While the mainstream western media has largely ignored the possibility of Nato-aligned forces secretely operating in Ukraine, it is a common theme on pro-Russian websites.

But so far, despite numerous foreign volunteers being identified as fighting on the Ukrainian side, no evidence has emerged of a serving member of the regular forces of a Nato country being captured or killed in the conflict.

A video purporting to show American mercenaries roaming through Donetsk was released by Iranian broadcaster Press TV during the early stages of the conflict last year.

Local people are supposed to have shouted “Blackwater” – the name of a well-known US private security firm – at the men and chased after them.

But the Ukrainian fact-checking website stopfake.org said the word was probably the Russian equivalent of the phrase “go to work” instead, and the men were likely to be members of Alpha, a Ukrainian special forces unit.