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Putin Signs Decree Classifying ‘Peacetime’ Deaths of Russian Soldiers

The move comes amid fears of a fresh offensive by Russian-backed separatists.

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Reports of Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine are now all but impossible to ignore. Recent weeks have seen a series of well-documented, highly publicized reports detailing the extent to which Russian troops have been deployed. So on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took action to try to stem the flow of highly damaging reports: He signed a decree declaring the deaths of Russian soldiers during special operations carried out in peacetime be classified a state secret.

Putin’s move amends a previous decree that had only classified the deaths of Russian servicemen during wartime. The move comes amid fears of a fresh offensive by Russian-backed separatists. A Reuters report on a military buildup along the Ukrainian border found that Russian forces and weaponry — including mobile rocket launchers, tanks, and artillery — are massing at a makeshift base in Kuzminsky, approximately 30 miles from the border with Ukraine.

At the same time, a series of recent studies has documented in painstaking detail the presence of Russian forces. Although Moscow denies that its troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine, the evidence clearly indicates otherwise, including, most recently, a study published by the Atlantic Council Thursday. That report uses videos, photographs, and satellite images to track Russian military involvement throughout the conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 6,100 people. The report states that during the past year of fighting, Russia has used temporary camps near the border as “launching points of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

A tentative cease-fire signed in February has limited fighting in Ukraine, but clashes and deaths have continued, something the Atlantic Council sees as a harbinger of renewed full-scale fighting: “The West must also recognize that Putin has used each lull in combat … to further reinforce Russian and Russian-backed forces in Ukraine’s east and to prepare for the next stage of fighting.”

Amid the prospect of intensified fighting, Putin’s decree also targets reports of Russian soldiers killed and injured in Ukraine, a politically explosive issue that threatens to undermine the president’s public support. Since August 2014, when the scale of the fighting in Ukraine increased considerably, the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee and other human rights groups have published details of dead soldiers being returned for burial in Russia.

A report initiated by slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and published in May by opposition activists claimed that at least 220 serving Russian soldiers have been killed fighting in Ukraine. A March assessment by the military analyst Igor Sutyagin of the Royal United Services Institute alleged that at least 800 Russian servicemen had been killed.

The same month, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta interviewed a badly burned Russian tank crewman in a Donetsk hospital who said he had been serving with the 5th Independent Tank Brigade in Siberia when he was ordered on “exercises,” which he said the soldiers had understood to mean a deployment to eastern Ukraine. Dorzhi Batomunkuev, the wounded tanker, said his brigade had been combined with detachments of men from other Russian army combat units during three months of training at a camp near Kuzminsky — the same camp where Reuters reporters are witnessing another military buildup.

Amid the growing scrutiny, Moscow has shifted tactics. According to a Tuesday Bloomberg report, Russian forces in Ukraine are using so-called “mobile crematoriums” to hide their casualties and eliminate any evidence.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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