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Russian soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine: A web of lies and fake social network pages

21.11.14 | Halya Coynash

Unmarked graves in the Rostov oblast [Russia]

The Russian authorities are still citing the state secrets act or medical confidentiality to avoid telling the truth about soldiers, some conscripts, killed in fighting in Ukraine.  They have even tried to pretend that the Pskov paratroopers killed are still alive, with fake VKontakte social network entries 

A judgement from Russia’s Constitutional Court should in theory help combat Moscow’s continuing attempts to deny that Russian soldiers are being sent to fight and are dying in Ukraine.  Scepticism does seem warranted, however, given the extraordinary methods being used to stop the truth emerging.

The Russian Constitutional Court met in closed session on Nov 6 to consider a complaint lodged by Oleg Laptev whose brother, a police officer accused of rape, was found hanged in the SIZO [pre-trial detention unit].   The police had carried out checks but refused to initiate criminal proceedings, referring to state secrets and supposed “information about forces, means, methods and individuals helping the investigative operation on a confidential basis”.   The Court ruled that where a check into the death of a close relative had been carried out, but the bereaved person or his / her lawyer had been refused access to information on the pretext that it contained state secrets, the person was entitled to seek the removal of such an obstacle.  The point was clear:  there needed to be access to information which would indicate whether a crime had taken place and therefore whether refusal to initiate criminal proceedings had been warranted.

Soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine

Radio Svoboda spoke about the ruling with both Ella Polyakova, head of the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers organization and with Lev Shlosberg, the politician and journalist from Pskov who first published information about the Pskov paratroopers whose deaths in Ukraine the Russian authorities were – and still are – trying to conceal.

Polyakova has some criticism but is on the whole positive about the move, which in her view demonstrates that the system for protecting human rights in Russia does work and is based on the constitutional rights in chapter 2 of the Constitution. 

As reported here, her organization recently applied to both the Defence Ministry and Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office asking for information about Russian soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine.  They were refused the information with the claim that it contained ‘medical secrets’.  Polyakova believes that the Constitutional Court ruling can help them obtain such information.  If an attempt is made on the life or health or a Russian soldier, then the investigation must be open with evidence provided.

Lev Schlosberg, who has already been given the excuse that information falls under the state secrets act, is much less sanguine.  He is convinced that the judgement can have no bearing on the events in Ukraine.  For the Constitutional Court to become involved, people need to have gone through the Russian courts, been refused and to prove that their rights have been infringed. 

Schlosberg probably has a point.  In Laptev’s case, there was no concealment of the fact that his brother had been arrested and died in SIZO.  Russia is denying that it is waging a war against Ukraine.  Where the evidence is simply too great, and the soldiers’ nationality cannot be concealed, Moscow claims that these are ‘volunteers’, who took unpaid leave to go and fight in Ukraine.

Lev Schlosberg received an answer of sorts from Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office on Nov 10.  He had asked for a check to be carried out into the deaths of 12 soldiers and to provide information as to who had ordered the soldiers to leave their regular posting and where and how they had died.  He was told that the information fell under the state secrets law.

   The graves of Pskov paratroopers killed in Ukraine in August

Rather like in Soviet days, Schlosberg has found a lot of information from dissecting what was said and not said.  The answer confirms that the soldiers died, and that this was not in the Pskov region where the men were posted.  He is convinced that the men died in Ukraine having been ordered by their commanders to go there.  The prosecutor did not answer the other questions but did claim that all the circumstances had been established by a highly professional forensic specialists, and that a check was being carried out as to whether criminal proceedings were to be initiated. 

The most cynical fact that emerges from the effective confirmation of the men’s death is the degree of subterfuge used to conceal the deaths.  There are, for example, individuals who are pretending to be the dead soldiers and posting messages on their social network pages in order to create the impression that they are still alive.  It was clear from the outset that pressure was being brought to bear on the dead man’s families.  On one occasion, a journalist even spoke by phone with somebody claiming to be Leonid Kichatkin, one of the first two men reported killed. 

Schlosberg disputes one statement of the prosecutor’s response – the claim that there were no infringements of Russian legislation in the orders issued by the military command and officials.  He is convinced, on the contrary, that both the Constitution and Russian laws were breached.

Lies and pressure from the outset

Schlosberg himself was savagely attacked at the end of August, just days after he published an article with information about the Pskov paratroopers who had died in Ukraine and whose death Russia was trying to conceal.

Shlosberg’s article “The Dead and the Living” describes the funerals on Aug 25 of two paratroopers -  Leonid Kichatkin and Alexander Osipov - in the village of Vybuty outside Pskov.   It begins with the words: “The Russian state is trying to hide the fact that it is sending its sons to war, conceal how they die and where their funerals are taking place”.

The server which holds the newspaper’s site was the first to come under attack.  Then on Aug 26, journalists from Russian Planet, TV Dozhd and the St Petersburg Internet publication Fontanka were attacked as they tried to get to the cemetery and investigate the death of the paratroopers.

In early September Schlosberg’s newspaper published a transcript of conversations apparently between two paratroopers which suggest that almost all soldiers of the first regiment of the No. 76 Pskov airborne paratrooper division were killed in Ukraine. 

According to the men talking, only around 10 paratroopers survived, with approximately 70 therefore killed.

There have since been numerous reports of other deaths of soldiers in Ukraine; of conscripts forced to sign documents ‘volunteering’ to go to Ukraine.  Valentina Melnykova from Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia recently told Novaya Gazeta of 250 conscripts who had refused to go to Ukraine.  On the other hand many relatives remain silent.  Melnykova believes that this is because they have been promised something by the command.  

On the other hand, the attack on Schlosberg was only one incident in an ongoing offensive against those who try to find out about soldiers fighting and dying in Ukraine.  71-year-old Ludmila Bogatenkova from a local Soldiers’ Mothers groups is now on house arrest and facing highly questionable charges.  The investigators tried to get her remanded in custody but she was in such bad health that the SIZO refused to admit her.  Around the same time, the St Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers organization was forcibly registered as a ‘foreign agent’. 

Whatever the pressure brought to bear, this is likely to be one propaganda war that Russia cannot win.  In a recent Levada Centre survey only 12% of Russians did not believe that Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine.  Only 13% would support their sons fighting for the Kremlin-backed militants in eastern Ukraine, while two thirds (68%) would try to stop them going. 

If they knew.  For the moment, the Russian authorities are continuing to use all kinds of methods, including gross deception and unacceptable forms of pressure, to maintain a monstrous lie. 

see also:
Another Russian NGO critical of rights violations branded as ‘foreign agent’
Russia labels Sakharov Centre a ‘foreign agent’
Another Russian rights group probing Russian soldiers’ role in Ukraine under fire
More Russians aware that their sons are being sent to fight and die in Ukraine
Persecution of elderly activist exposing Russian soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine continues
Russian rights activist investigating soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine arrested
Russia continues lying about solders’ deaths in Ukraine
First reports on Pro-Kremlin TV of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine
Entire Pskov paratrooper regiment killed in Ukraine?
More Russian conscripts forced to fight in Ukraine
Attacked for asking why Russian paratroopers died fighting in Ukraine
The Russian Invasion and Deaths Putin didn’t mention
Russian NGO has list of 400 killed or wounded Russian soldiers