Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week story The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
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The growing number of funerals of Russian soldiers killed in action in Ukraine provide evidence of the Russian military presence in the Donbass.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine obviously have many of Russia’s neighbors frightened since Russia was responding to the internal politics of a sovereign nation with brute force. But what is less obvious, because it attracted fewer headlines, is that Russia’s interference in Ukraine started long before “little green men” took over Crimea, and Ukraine is not the only country where Russia is engaged in this behavior.
In the summer of 2013, Russia waged trade wars against several neighbors, including Ukraine, in order to bully them away from joining the European Union. In the last year Russia has infiltrated or tested the territorial boundaries of European nations by air, sea, and land. In August, in a military-style operation, Russian agents crossed Estonia’s border and kidnapped a counter-intelligence agent, dragging him across the border into Russia where he is now facing espionage charges.
How serious are Russia’s neighbors taking this threat? Well, Lithuania has created a new manual for its citizens to prepare them to resist a Russian invasion. The Atlantic reports:
The 98-page guide, which this week goes out to libraries and army personnel in the 3-million-strong Baltic nation, is meant to gird citizens for the possibility of invasion, occupation, and armed conflict. The manual, entitled “How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War,” may seem an overly anxious measure in a country like Lithuania, which lived under Soviet control from 1940 to 1991 but has enjoyed the security of European Union and NATO membership since 2004…
“When Russia started its aggression in Ukraine, our citizens here in Lithuania understood that our neighbor is not friendly,” said Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas in an interview with Reuters.
The examples of Georgia and Ukraine—which have both lost parts of their territory in wars with Russia or pro-Russian separatists—”show us that we cannot rule out a similar kind of situation here,” added Olekas, who noted in the manual’s introduction that he had received “frequent questions about our homeland defense from ordinary Lithuanian citizens.”
The manual instructs citizens on how to prepare bomb shelters, and even suggests that if the Russian army occupies their town then they should consider “doing your job worse than usual” as a measure of passive resistance.
— James Miller
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel says that sanctions on Russia are “inevitable,” but they are not “an end in itself,” today at the Davos economic reform, the Ukrainian news site 24 Today reported.
But she sees no reason to lift them now over Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“The annexation of Crimea is not just any annexation,” she said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
is a violation of the values that created a peaceful order in Europe
after World War Two, namely the acceptance of borders and respect of
“Economic sanctions were unavoidable. They are not an end in themselves.
They can be lifted if the reasons why they were introduced are removed.
But unfortunately we are not there yet.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
One way the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine has been proven is
by the number of reports of funerals held for Russian soldiers whose
relatives say that they have learned they died in combat in Ukraine
Alec Luhn reports in The Guardian on the growing number of families who have had to cope with the return of the bodies of their loved ones from Ukraine.
A growing body of information about Russian soldiers killed in
Ukraine has started to reveal a damning picture of Moscow’s intervention
in the separatist conflict there, despite Kremlin denials of involvement.
As fighting continued to flare in the east particularly around Donetsk airport, an online organisation has catalogued more than 260 people reportedly killed in eastern Ukraine. The Open Russia organisation , started by the Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has also published a map showing where the dead are from.
The official denial of Russian military participation in Ukraine
has pressured the relatives of those who served and died there to keep
silent, and could deprive many of them of the benefits to which they are
entitled. But some have started to speak out.
Yelena Tumanova, a hospital orderly from Russia’s Mari El republic,
said her son Anton Tumanov told her by phone on 10 August that his army
unit was being sent to Donetsk. On 20 August, a coffin came back to
Mari El with a small window through which she could see his face. His
legs had been torn off by an artillery strike, his comrades told her. He
was 20 years old.
“When he chose this path, we didn’t know they were sending our
soldiers to Ukraine,” Tumanova told the Guardian. “If I would have
known, if he would have known … he would not have joined up again. Even
if he would have, I wouldn’t have let him. But he said: ‘Don’t worry,
[the Russian president Vladimir] Putin says they won’t send anyone
Many of these reports came from a period in August when Russia
staged an invasion of Ukraine that was widely documented by foreign
reporters and international monitors.
Since then, reports have continued, but the numbers have been hard
to verify. The Interpreter has reported on efforts by Russian
journalists and non-governmental organizations to find and verify the
reports. Open Russia, a project of exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has collated and checked these lists, indicating that in December 2014, 227 cases of regular soldiers or volunteers
— mainly the latter — were verified as killed in combat in
Ukraine or very close to the border. This number was then updated to 262 this week after fighting at the airport and other locations.
Often draftees are turned into
contract fighters at the end of their duty in the armed forces, to make
it appear that Russia’s regular army is not in Ukraine. Sometimes their
cause of death is said to be “an accident” in training or “a heart
attack” which does not seem credible when there are so many of such
Elena Vasilieva, a Russian activist known for environmental work,
has created a Facebook group, Gruz-200 (referring to “Cargo 200,”the Russian military term for return of those killed in combat) to track reports of Russian
soldiers killed or missing in action. She claims to have reports of 382 Russian soldiers killed just in the last week, i.e. not as the total to date. Vasilieva has been subjected to intense harassment by pro-Kremlin activists, and some fake articles have also been posted with her as a source, which she has denied.
While undoubtedly the tally of combat deaths has grown in recent weeks, Vasilieva’s reports
have not been found credible by any other war correspondent, nor has
any such number been verified by any other independent journalists or
NGOs in Russia or Ukraine. The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg has
been among the groups keeping such lists, along with Lev Shlosberg, a
Pskov legislator and editor who has been beaten severely in connection
with his publicizing of information on combat deaths of paratroopers in
There were multiple reports last week of deaths of Chechens loyal
to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov fighting on behalf of the
Russian-backed forces at the Donetsk Airport. This is consistent with
past reporting of Chechens verified to have been killed in Ukraine. But
independent regional media such as Caucasian Knot
have not yet reported any funerals in Chechnya or other regions of the
North Caucasus during this period to match the claims of current deaths.
Other independent Russian media, such as TV Rain, Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta,
all of which has assiduously covered combat deaths, have not reported
anything like “382” for the last week, although there have been some
confirmed deaths of Russian fighters. All of these outlets have also
suffered beatings of reporters and editors over this issue, but have
persisted in reporting.
Ultranationalist groups in Russia with active accounts on
VKontakte, the Russian social media network, have been a frequent source
for reports of combat deaths as their members volunteer to fight in the
In a video address,
Sergei Kurginyan, the leader of Sut’ Vremeni [Essence of Time], an
ultranationalist group that has aided the rebels in the Donbass (even
claiming to repair a Buk) and sent their own people into war reports
that three of their members were killed in the last week in “liberating”
the Donetsk Airport.
One was Yevgeny Krasnoshein, a paratrooper who went by the nickname
“Pyatnitsa” (Friday), who posted pictures of himself on
Vkontakte serving in the Russian paratroopers’ division in 2008-2009, and in February 2014, a call to sign an Essence of Time petition. His friends recently began posting condolences to his
page. A picture of him taken in 2013 seeming to fly through clouds that eerily prefigured his death has been widely disseminated in Russian and Ukrainian social media.
Two others are Yevgeny Sergeyevich Belyakov, whose nickname was “Belka” (“Squirrel) and Igor Vladimirovich Yudin, whose nickname was “Bolgarin” or “Bulgarian.”
The total claimed of more than 6,000 Russians killed throughout the war also has no evidence to back it up. That would be
more than the 5,000 civilians who are said to have died in the war, as
calculated by the UN, OSCE and the Ukrainian government. It would be highly
unusual in a modern war for the number of combatants to exceed the
number of civilians killed, as usually the ratio is a very low number of
fighters to a high number of civilians.
There’s also no other reporting from any other sources to back up
some of the claims of how the bodies have been hidden or disposed. One claim is that they are
thrown down abandoned mines, although we have seen in the past that when
people have been killed or executed in this way, their bodies have been
discovered by locals, as was the case when the OSCE
verified a mass grave of five individuals outside of Donetsk last year.
Another claim is that there are mobile crematoriums in
which hundreds of bodies are destroyed in the field, and yet no
credible independent Ukrainian or Russian reporter, or foreign
journalist, has confirmed this claim.
(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Russian independent media has reported more on the Anti-Maidan movement that has been appearing at opposition opposition rallies and pickets, sometimes beating demonstrators.
Novaya Gazeta‘s Nikita Grin says that a number of public figures have come forward to say they are the leaders of this movement. We can add some biographical details:
– Aleksandr Zaldostanov, known as “The Surgeon,” the head of the Night Wolves’ biker club. Recently Zaldostanov went to Grozny to attend a million-Muslim rally against cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Zaldostanov has met with Putin a number of times.
– Dmitry Sablin, member of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. Sablin is closely tied to Boris Gromov, an Afghan veteran (the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan) who served as deputy interior minister and
governor of Moscow Region and is currently a deputy of the State
– Nikolai Starikov, writer, chair of the Great Fatherland Party
– Vyacheslav Shabanov, member of the Afghanistan Veteran’s Council
– Yuliya Berezikova, world champing in mixed martial arts and boxing. Berezikova lost her last fight in 2013 to Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk
– Frants Klintsevich, deputy chair of United Russia, the ruling party.
– Mikhail Porechenkov, a famous war-film actor, who has become infamous for joining Russian-backed rebels and shooting at Ukrainians at the Donetsk Airport while wearing “press” identification.
Sablin says that the movement already has 1,000 members, and that it would likely grow to 10,000 because it has had that many applications already. It has a headquarters and executive committee and plans to chose co-chairs:
The numeric size of the organization is important, since, in Sablin’s words, the anti-Maidan activists intend to go to all the major unauthorized mass events and numerically dominate over their participants. “If a non-authorized mass event is planned, then all the members of the organization will turn out. If it’s a local action, we will monitor the situation: the Cossacks will turn out in some places, the Fighting Brotherhood will turn out in others, At any rate, there will always be more of us than the participants.
Anti-Maidan already tested this idea at a rally on January 15 in defense of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his brother, Oleg, who were unjustly charged with fraud. Only a few hundred people turned out after Navalny himself urged that the event, originally tied to his sentencing date, be cancelled, and they were overwhelmed by Cossacks, Afghan war veterans, and young men in orange-striped wool caps who beat up some of the protesters.
Cossacks in Anti-Maidan movement. Photo by Vitaly Kavataradze/Novaya Gazeta
Sablin said they would strive to recruit professional athletes and military officers. Asked if they would deliberately start fights, Sablin said that “we are for observing the law, but we will not allow people to be offended and we will always defend our country and the values of our society.” He also said there would be special training camps for the member’s recruits.
As we noted, the first reports about an “Anti-Maidan” movement forming on the model of such organizations in the Crimea last year appeared in August by Izvestiya, which said spetsnaz military officers, Orthodox Church supporters, Cossacks, bikers and other nationalists would take part.
Then later further reports indicated a similar configuration. Now, however, the Russian Orthodox element seems to be missing as such in the form of known Orthodox leaders, although Zaldostanov portrays himself as a devout biker. This could indicate some behind-the-scenes disagreements or jockeying for power regarding how the opposition will be resisted.
Also missing are any obvious members of the hard-core ultranationalist groups that have sent fighters to the Donbass, such as the Eurasianist leftists of Essence of Time or the National Liberation Movement [NOD]
That may be due to the fact that this is “managed democracy,” and Kremlin social engineers have carefully created this group so that it doesn’t challenge its own rule.
RBC quotes Prof. Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Higher Economics School, who points out these types of anti-protest groups were made in 2004 during the “Orange Revolution” as well:
It’s hard to image that the joining of bikers and veterans will leave to some productive political forces, aimed at work, and not just threats, said the expert.
Sergei Davidis, a member of the Memorial Human Rights Center said that the movement will not deter street demonstrations, but will merely bring a greater element of conflict to them.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick