The Kremlin has played an astute hand in the Ukrainian crisis, lying to the international community and the Russian people about its innocence in the conflict while simultaneously ratcheting its aggression. In Crimea, the Russian government and media initially denied that the Russian military was involved in securing the peninsula for Russian control and a sham plebiscite. It wasn’t until April that Putin admitted that Russian troops were responsible for disarming the Ukrainian military in Crimea and facilitating its illegal annexation. The Kremlin progressively increases its involvement in Ukraine, forces the international community to accept the new status quo by hinting at de-escalation, before intensifying its aggression even more. This strategy was successful as long as the Russians dying in Ukraine were primarily volunteers and social outcasts—members of fascist organizations, hired mercenaries, and ex-convicts. When these fighters died in Ukraine there was little outrage; they had volunteered to fight. However, this same approach will not work when Russian servicemen, rather than ideologically-motivated volunteers, fight and die in Ukraine.
Evidence of direct Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine is now irrefutable. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian government revealed that it had captured Russian servicemen on Ukrainian territory. The soldiers admitted that that had been ordered, some of them unknowingly, onto Ukrainian territory. Rapid militant advances in the Donbas at the moment are known to be done with the assistance of Russian military troops and heavy weaponry. Even Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, admits that several thousand Russian soldiers operate in eastern Ukraine, who he dubiously claimed are volunteers and on temporary leave from the military. Despite continued denials emanating from the Kremlin, the Russian government will find it increasingly difficult to cover up the death and capture of its own soldiers, even to Russian society itself.
Russian civil society organizations are increasingly expressing concern that its soldiers are being secretly deployed to Ukraine without the notification of family members. The families of those Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine publicly pleaded to President Putin and the Russian government to secure their release from Ukraine. The Committee for Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian NGO, has stated that approximately 15,000 Russian soldiers are currently serving on Ukrainian territory. NATO, on the other hand, has stated that there “at least” 1,000 Russian military soldiers in Ukraine.
Furthermore, Russian reporters have said that they were attacked when following a story about the surreptitious burials of Russian paratroopers killed in Ukraine. According to journalists from newspapers Pskovskaya Guberniya and Telegraf, when reporters arrived in Pskov, to the site of alleged burials, armed thugs threatened them with death, eventually attacking their cars and erasing photographs of the site. All the while, the Kremlin denies that the soldiers buried in Pskov are related to the conflict in Ukraine.
Unlike the extremist Kremlin-supported Russian volunteers who have been fighting in the Donbass, the Kremlin will not be able to deny responsibility and sweep the deaths of Russian soldiers under the rug. These soldiers, many of them conscripts, have families that will ask questions about the disappearances, injuries, and deaths of their loved ones. Additionally, civil society organizations that support the welfare and interests of Russian soldiers, such as Committee for Soldiers’ Mothers, remain among the most independent NGOs in the country.
Clamoring voices are already revealing the Kremlin’s web of lies and prevarications, debunking the narrative that the Russian government is neither assisting the militants nor sending Russian troops into Ukraine. As Russia’s involvement deepens, which is overwhelmingly evident over the past several days, the Kremlin lies will likely fall apart not only in front of the international community, which has long recognized Russian prevarications, but in front of the Russian people as well. Only so many Russian soldiers can end up captured, injured, or killed before friends and relatives start asking questions and demanding answers. Soon, Putin will either need to come clean about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, or face increasing scrutiny and distrust from his own people.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center