Putin’s Wars Come Home to Russia — Despite Moscow’s Efforts to Hide the Bodies

Russian combat losses in Ukraine are sufficiently large that they have already had an impact on demographic statistics, pushing up to anomalous heights the number of dead in three Russian regions in 2014-2015 and possibly prompting Moscow to send bodies to various places to conceal just how large these losses are, Tatyana Kolesova says.

Kolesova, who works with the Petersburg Observers group, told Radio Liberty’s Tatyana Voltskaya that the official figures were striking because the usual causes of mortality from accidents and alcoholism had not increased and yet the number of dead had soared in Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnoyarsk oblasts.

She says that the only conclusion she could reach was that “the appearance of this anomalous mortality in May 2014 was connected with the fact that a significant number of Russians were participating in military actions on the territory of other countries,” in this case Ukraine.

In these three oblasts alone, she says, there were 6312 “excess” deaths in 2014 and 2015 than one would have expected on the basis of figures for the pre-war year of 2013. Moreover, increases in the number of deaths was marked in every month and not in one or two as one might have expected from an accident or an epidemic.

And there is another problem: officials clearly registered these deaths in these three places even if it may not have been the case that the people who died were from there, Kolesova says. That leads to suspicions that officials in these regions but perhaps not in others were prepared to cooperate with Moscow in seeking to hide these combat losses.

Given how many problems there are with official statistics in Russia, no final conclusions can yet be drawn, although one other expert confirmed Kolesova’s findings that the death numbers she points to were truly anomalous.

There is no reason to assume that the Russian government isn’t continuing to do the same thing now to hide continuing losses in Ukraine and Syria lest Russians come to recognize what the true cost of Putin’s wars are for them, especially given Moscow’s denial of Russian involvement in the former and downplaying of its ground role in the other.

But there is another reason to suspect that Moscow is trying to hide these losses: It has a long tradition of seeking to cover up losses it doesn’t want anyone to talk about, not only in its reports about deaths from the Holodomor and the GULAG but in other far more recent events as well.

The author of these lines was exposed to a horrific example of this after the violent clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Sumqayit in February 1988 when Soviet officials shipped the bodies of victims to morgues across the USSR so that no one place would know just how many died and in this case how they died.

Peace at Last in Ukraine? Analyzing Russian Goals

As we await the form of the local elections in the areas of the Donbas occupied by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (the DNR and LNR), there is much speculation in the Western media whether the Minsk agreement will be upheld. Much revolves around Russia’s intentions, as well as the attitude of the militant separatist leaders who wish to use the elections to remove their fiefdoms from Ukraine.

Over the past days according to the reports of the OSCE and other sources, overt conflict in the separatist regions seems to have ended and some of the separatist leaders have either been removed or else appear to have migrated—at least for now—to the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin is reluctant to remain involved in a war that is going nowhere, but costing Russia sorely in terms of commitment of weaponry and manpower, and even more in terms of alienation from Europe and the United States.

Some observers have noted a sustained buildup at Tartus, Russia’s military base in Syria in support of the forces of President Bashar Al-Assad. Predictably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denies any increase in Russian forces and maintains that it is little changed from earlier.

Nonetheless, that Russia has increased its commitment to Syria while reducing that to the territories of ‘Novorossiya’ in the Donbas is evident. It is unclear whether in the event of a Ukrainian attempt to regain its former territories there would be much opposition in the Kremlin. Rather, as almost occurred in the summer of 2014, Russia might prefer to abandon the separatist regimes and leaders to their fate.

How can such a move be equated with the apparent commitment to Ukrainian separatists and the construction of ‘Novorossiya’?

Some reasons can readily be dismissed, such as the decisive impact of Western sanctions. Sanctions have had some effects, but there is no indication that they have had a serious impact on Putin’s popularity or Russia’s ability to withstand prolonged recession.

Instead, more important are the following. First, the annexation of Crimea has proven extremely costly, and has become more a symbolic triumph than an act of wise statesmanship. True, many Crimeans may have supported it. But providing services to Crimea is difficult, and the peninsula, other than providing bases for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, has little to offer.

Second, the militants, unsurprisingly given their dearth of ideas and commitments, have failed to attract support of he populations in the areas they control. A case in point is Aleksandr Zaharchenko, the leader of the DNR, who continues to make bellicose statements as the peace process makes advances. Though there are many important distinctions between the DNR and LNR, both require conflict to make advances rather than periods of stability. Both require the continued investment of Russian troops, equipment, and personnel that Moscow is no longer prepared to offer given the remote chance of long-term success.

Third, and related, ethnic Russians in Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainians outside the small separatist enclave have no interest either in joining Russia or supporting a prospective full-scale Russian invasion. Even Sergey Aksyonov, the appointed leader of Crimea, would make little headway in a free election, as was evident in the last pre-annexation elections when his party achieved less than 5% of the vote. When pro-Russians failed in their attempted takeover of cities like Kharkiv in the late spring of 2014, it was evident that Vladimir Putin had misinterpreted the signs of support in Ukraine.

In short, opposition to Euromaidan did not signify pro-Russian sentiment or separatism. Most opponents of the protests in Ukraine would, given the choice, put up with the new government, particularly if it secured economic stability, just as they endured the turbulent years of the Yushchenko presidency, or for that matter the corruption of the Yanukovych years. Insofar as the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ existed, it was limited to a small coterie of gunmen and Russian idealists who for a time had the backing of the Kremlin.

Fourth, Russia has moved on. One of the few identifying aspects of the Putin leadership, as with his personal image, is the need for instant triumphs without sustained commitment, images over concrete achievements. That requires foreign policy maneuvers that might enhance the prestige of the regime and allow it to maintain profitable contacts with the Western world. Rhetoric aside—and there has been much of it—Moscow prefers to keep the lines open to the markets of the West while adopting the role of a major player in international affairs.

As far as Syria is concerned, perhaps the logic is that by maintaining Assad in power, Russia can persuade the West that it is better to keep it as a partner rather than an adversary. Just as in 2001, Moscow and Washington can join forces against terrorists, in this case the Islamic State. That is not to say that such a policy will receive much sympathy in Washington, which perceives such intervention as exacerbating the conflict.

Another theory is that by intervening in Syria, Russia will bring the West to the negotiating table, with an agreement that if the Russians keep out of that conflict, they might be given a free hand in Ukraine. But as argued above, that is not what they are seeking at present. Rather the goal is to be recognized as a significant power—in short, it is alienation that rankles rather than sanctions. Russia would like to return to the G8 and believes that there is a possibility of doing so.

Where does that leave Ukraine? Over 8,000 have died in the Donbas conflict to date and over a million residents have left the region. Analysts in the West continue to debate whether there is a civil war or a Russian war in Ukraine. The correct answer is probably a little of both. But the fact remains that the rebels would not survive for long without Russian support. Once they lose it, and given the Kremlin’s current acceptance that an invasion would be highly unpopular both in the area and at home, the likelihood is that DNR and LNR will once more come under Ukrainian control.

None of the above should lead to a conclusion that the Russian government recognizes the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Rather it prefers to wield influence from afar, to ensure that in terms of security interests, both Ukraine and Belarus are in the Russian sphere. A new accommodation with the West would then, in theory lead to the return of economic growth, decreased commitment of military personnel and equipment, and assurance that there should be no further buildup or expansion of NATO.

There is also herein an assumption that there must be some logic to Russia’s latest policy moves, an apparent commitment to the peace process of Minsk as well as to the government of Syria. In reality such moves may be no more than feelers to elicit the reaction of Western powers. Still, Russia is clearly dissatisfied with the status quo, in Ukraine and elsewhere. And that is bad news for the leaders of the DNR and LNR.

Live on Twitter: Journalists confirm invasion has begun

Did long predicted invasion of mainland Ukraine “officially” just start? UK journalists Shaun Walker (Guardian) and Roland Oliphant (Telegraph) seem to think it has, seeing Armored Personnel Carriers with official Russian plates cross the border. Various other journalists documenting the situation have photographed columns of tanks and other heavy military vehicles heading in the direction of the border.

(last updated Aug 15, 10:45am EST)

 

“A column of armored vehicles (12 pieces) goes towards the Ukrainian border.”

This article will be updated as the situation progresses on Twitter.

'Strelkov' apologizes for Donetsk looting

Military commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Russian operative Igor “Strelkov” Girkin has made a public plea to the people of Donetsk, calling to ‘severely punish’ his men for committing “serious crimes and banditry” in an attempt to save face following the city’s increased occupation by his militia.

“I ask the people of Donetsk for understanding of what people arrived here, who for months lived in a state of stress and deadly threat. Not all of the men were prepared to enter a peaceful city after being in the trenches,” he said.

[quote]”Perpetrators of such crimes will immediately be court martialed, regardless of their relationship to the militia.”[/quote]

In a separate interview, he suggested that increasing wages and compensation for militiamen would increase local enlistment. He had previously made public statements decrying a lack of local support in the Donetsk area.

After retreating en masse from Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and ceding the key cities to Ukrainian forces, Strelkov’s militia took up positions in Donetsk, the region’s largest city and capital. Looting had already been a problem in the past for Donetsk, with members of the Vostok Battalion from Russia seizing the Regional State Administration building and detaining offenders from the Donbass People’s Militia.

‘Strelkov’ has been described by Ukraine’s security service as a Russian colonel and resident of Moscow. He is currently a target of European Union sanctions, and was named by the EU’s Official Journal to be on the staff of the Russian foreign military intelligence agency (GRU), and a key figure involved in the military takeover of Crimea as an assistant on security matters to Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s self-declared prime minister.

The Donetsk Republic remains legally classified as a terrorist organization in Ukraine.