GUNS OF AUGUST

How Russia Hides Its Dead Soldiers Killed in Ukraine

As fighting flares with no end in sight, Kiev makes its casualties public, while Russian military deaths in ‘peacetime’ are officially a state secret.

08.19.15 5:25 AM ET

MOSCOW — Violence in eastern Ukraine is boiling over. The entire front line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions known as Donbas is on fire with both enemies, Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed army, blaming one another for shelling populated areas with Grad rocket launch systems, killing civilians on both sides. Kiev, Moscow, and the Donetsk leaders are warning each other of even worse escalations, even more violence, despite the ceasefire agreement reached at Minsk last February.

But as the Ukrainian people learned of the casualties on their side, the Russians are kept in the dark about the dead among their forces.

We know that at least nine people were killed, both military and civilians, and over a dozen wounded on Sunday and Monday nights.

In the past, such escalations resulted in new ceasefire agreements in Minsk with European Union leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin drawing new “lines of separation,” but this time Moscow does not seem to believe in peace talks.

“If Ukraine begins to fight, this time Russia will not be able to stop the armies of DPR and LPR [the two breakaway republics of Donbas]. There will be no new Minsk. It will be either Kiev or Donetsk,” one of the leading TV hosts at Russian state television, Vladimir Solovyev, wrote on his Twitter account Monday.

As the UN called both sides for immediate de-escalation of violence, both Kiev and Moscow spoke about “full-scale fighting.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the Ukrainian government for staging offensive operations. “The development of events in the past days concerns us, as they remind us of preparations for the next round of fighting,” Lavrov said.

Ukrainian Minister of Defense Sergei Galushko blamed Moscow for new attacks in an effort to spoil Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations on August 24. “The Russian leadership is surprised that Ukraine remains independent, with public support for the anti-terrorist operation, so Russia will try to prevent our holiday,” Galushko said.

Hundreds of soldiers are dying on both sides in the war that started in April last year and never seems close to ending. Kiev reported around 1,800 military were killed in Donbas; the Russian non-governmental organization Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers believed that at least half of the rebel losses, 900 militants, were Russian professional military. And there is a dramatic difference between how Russian and Ukrainian families treated their lost sons in the conflict.

If Ukraine buries its military as heroes with crowds saying goodbye to each dead soldier, and the media covering the funerals, Russia stays quiet about its sons dying in Ukraine.

“It’s as if my people had been swapped with some strangers,” the head of Soldiers’ Mothers, Valentina Melnikova, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “I am amazed to see how scared military families are to protest against their sons being sent to Ukraine. Parents of killed soldiers, 40- and 50-year-old people, are scared to death to protest. Of what? If it’s to lose their jobs, this is ridiculous, they have lost their children.”

Last May President Putin officially declared military deaths in peacetime a state secret. His decision was seen as an attempt to cover up the Kremlin’s role in the Ukraine war. Russian human-rights groups protested Putin’s decree.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld Putin’s decree, ruling against the complaint by a Russian civil society group claiming that the decree was illegal, that it was hiding the true information about Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine.

That did not surprise Soldiers’ Mothers. They had seen the same story since the year they founded their organization—1989.

“Nobody was supposed to know the names of Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan or in Baku, their names appeared on the gravestones years later, sometimes a decade later,” Melnikova said.

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Today the organization receives calls from unhappy wives of soldiers and officers moved together with their children to the Rostov region near the Ukraine frontier.

“The insanity we see is against Russia, against our state, our society—all these military families with at least 500 little children are at the new military base, closer to the Ukrainian border. Even in 1941 families were not brought close to the front lines,” Melnikova told The Daily Beast.

Is the conflict going to escalate for several years? “That all depends on Putin personally, and on his gray military advisers. This story is irrational, it is beyond any comprehension; for as long as military families do not protest, there will be enough cannon fodder to be sent to war,” Russia’s main Soldiers’ Mother told The Daily Beast.