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.
Open Russia has published a list of 272 Russian soldiers reported to have been killed in Ukraine, which was made available by a source within the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. Many of the names on the list have been reported in recent months by The Interpreter, as Russian journalists and human rights activists have verified them.
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A meme has been making the rounds of Russian social media on Facebook and the Russian social media network VKontakte that illustrates changing attitudes toward President Vladimir Putin and his decision to launch a war on Ukraine.
It’s a screen grab of a post by Tatyana Krasnova, which we’ve translated as follows:
“Why the hell have we stuck our nose into Ukraine for? Let the Ukrainians solve their own problems, what the devil have we gotten dragged in for?”
How do you like this simple thought, people?
It was uttered today by my own personal mama, who, for the last year, has had television build a nest, lay eggs, and raise chicks in her head.
Citizens, and this is only the first round of the grand battle between the Television and the Refrigerator.
Refrigerator, dear, let’s go! Step on it!
Her reference is to the pinch ordinary Russians are already feeling in their pocketbooks from the ruble crash, and the shortage of goods as people rush to buy things at the stores, as well as the ban on foreign food imports as retaliation for Western sanctions.
The theory of Westerners as well as Russian opposition leaders has been that Putin’s ratings will fall eventually with the price of oil and the value of the ruble — but this has not happened yet.
Putin’s ratings have not fallen significantly in recent weeks even with the economic crisis.
The Levada Center published a poll today that shows that Putin’s ratings are holding at 85%, despite the economic crisis. Before the ruble collapse, in November, he also had an 85% approval rating.
Putin began the year with about 65% trust, and raised it to 70% in March after the occupation of the Crimea, says RBC.com. It kept rising after the Kremlin backed Russian insurgents to take over towns in the Donbass starting in April. His highest number in August (87%) came even after the downing of MH17, for which the separatists appear to be accountable, and even after the news broke that Russian soldiers were being killed in Ukraine. It reached its height this year (88%) in October.
Another poll published by the Levada Center today says that 56% of those surveyed believe things are going in the right direction in Russia, by contrast with 27% who don’t and 18% who are undecided.
This has fallen from a high of 66% in August who thought things were better, which was a trend building after the forcible annexation of the Crimea. So that’s a sign that Putinism may be taking a beating. But before the war in Crimea, only 47% thought things were going well.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Open Russia, the organization founded by former political prisoner and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has released a list of 227 Russian soldiers reported to have been killed in battle in Ukraine, citing a source within the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
[Update: at least 267 were confirmed as of March 5–The Interpreter].
Many of the names in the list are already familiar to journalists from independent Russian media including TV Rain, which has kept a list of cases they have verified, Novaya Gazeta, and Pskovskaya Gubernaya, as well as the Ukrainian publication Gordonua.com.
Open Russia has confirmed the cases from news reports and relatives’ accounts and attempted to establish the date and place of death and some biographical information.
In August, we reported on the discovery by the Ukrainian army of Russian soldiers in Ukraine when they encountered a BMP with the soldiers’ identification papers in it. Ukrainian and Russian bloggers began investigating the names through social media and found a number of pages with information about funerals, or pages which stopped being updated.
In September, we reported on the combined lists of these publications, which at that time totaled 51, and other soldiers whose deaths were confirmed as taking place in Ukraine were soon added. That list included such soldiers as Marsel Araptanov of Bashkortostan.
We have also reported on a number of soldiers killed who are in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry list, such as Yevgeny Pushkarev, Anton Tumanov of Mari El Republic; a list of nine soldiers from the 18th Motorized Rifle Brigade (army unit 27777) submitted by the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg to the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Ukrainian list also includes names confirmed elsewhere, such as Sergei Markov, a native of Karelia, whose death was reported by a local news site Vedkar.ru.
Investigating these stories and publishing them has led to reprisals for journalists and activists.
Lev Shlosberg, the Pskov legislator and founder of Pskovskaya Guberniya, was assaulted in August after he published the list of soldiers whose funerals had been documented in the Pskov Region, such as Leonid Kichatkov, who is in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry list.
Kseniya Batanova , the chief producer of TV Rain, was assaulted after her news site published the list.
A Soldiers’ Mothers activist, Ludmila Bogatenkova of Stavropol Territory, was arrested after she publicized the cases, and only recently released due to illness.
The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg were declared “foreign agents” after a local conservative legislator reported on them to authorities and now they are subject to intense scrutiny by the Justice Ministry.
An article accompanying the Open Russia story quotes Ilya Barabanov, special correspondent for Kommersant, who says that many of the names on the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s list are familiar to him (translation by The Interpreter):
I saw here all those who died from the first way at the end of May, the beginning of battles at the Donetsk Airport. Here, for example is Yevgeny Andropov, who was killed on May 26, Yury Abrosimov, who was killed May 26. If you look at the date of deaths, then it is either the end of May or the second half of the summer. The date “26 May” is encountered the most frequently — it is the date of the first serious battle at the Donetsk Airport, when at least 30 according to some figures and 50 according to others, volunteers who had come from Russia were killed by Ukrainian soldiers. Then more or less the dates spread over the second half of July and continue until early September when there was the beginning of the “Izvarino Kettle” and then “the Ilovaisk Kettle” when the “vacationers” went to the east of Ukraine.
Ukrainska Pravda has reported on the story of the Ukrainian Defense Minister’s list, and noted that none other than President Vladimir Putin himself gave an award for courage to one such soldier killed, Aleksey Zasov of Novouralsk, whose wife said his fellow soldiers told her he was killed in Ukraine while accompanying a humanitarian convoy. Military officials told her that he was killed in an accident on Russian territory, ZN.ua reported.
The list also overlaps with another list being maintained by a Facebook group, Gruz-200, (Cargo-200) so named for the Russian military name for the return of the bodies of soldiers who were killed in combat. That list contains 251 names, and activists are just preparing to add another, Yevgeny Belozertsev, a native of the town of Yershov in Saratov Region, a volunteer for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic,” who was killed December 7, according to a local news site.
The list is now being discussed in Russian-language social media, and dismissed by some because the first entry on the list is “a guy from Vladivostok” with the date of death “no later than October 25, 2014.” That indeed sounds sketchy, and Barabanov explains that Rostov Cossacks who brought out a number of bodies of Russian soldiers from Ukraine said there was one that could not be identified fully. Barabanov also notes that a number of the cases have been described at length on pro-separatist websites.
Yet the majority of the cases in the list have been reported elsewhere, and have a full name, date, and place of death, although often without any indication of the Russian military unit where they were serving, although this is known from other sources.
The total number of Russian combatants who have fought in Ukraine and have been killed there is not known. But the verified list has gone from 51 to over 200 since September, and activists estimate many more hundreds have been killed.
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