Vladimir Putin was cynically playing with words when he declared, on his annual broadcast to the Russian people on April 16, 2015: “I can tell you outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.” Russian troops are indeed in Ukraine, but under the fiction that they signed “separation documents” from the army before being shipped to the Ukraine combat zone. Even though many fight under the same Russian commander and in their old unit, they are no longer officially part of the Russian army, according to Putin’s twisted narrative.
There is no doubt that Russian troops have fought and are fighting in Ukraine, contrary to Putin’s “not one Russian soldier” assertion. The civic organization, Cargo 200, publishes names, photos, addresses, and military records of 167 regular troops “killed” and 187 “MIA” and 305 mercenaries “killed” and 796 “MIA.” The artillery and tank warfare in Ukraine leaves behind unidentifiable body parts. Most of the MIAs, therefore, are really KIAs. The Cargo 200 figures are underestimates because families of fallen soldiers risk losing death benefits if they talk. Societies of Russian Mothers gather information from grieving families to arrive at casualty figures of up to 3,500 KIA. Young Russian soldiers in Ukraine routinely post pictures on vKontakte (a Russian version of Facebook) of themselves in Ukraine and identify their unit. A vKontake habitué going silent is a sign of yet another combat death. We will not have an authoritative figure on Russian soldier deaths in Ukraine as long as Putin keeps such casualties a state secret.
There are other sources. Ukrainian intelligence has just publishedthe names, ranks, and photographs of the fifty Russian officers directing Russian forces in East Ukraine. Representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have reportedthe presence of Russian troops in the Donbass for over two years.
The English NGO, Bellingcat, has been a persistent thorn in the side of Putin’s Ukraine narrative. Using open sources, Bellingcat demonstrated that MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile system operated by a Russian crew that fled back to its home base in Russia after realizing they had shot down a civilian aircraft.
In its latest contribution, Bellingcat demolishes Putin’s “no combat operations = no Russian soldiers” myth. Bellingcat demonstrates that thousands of Russian soldiers have been awarded the highest honors of the Russian Federation for bravery/distinction in combat during a time when the only hot war going was in Ukraine. If Russia has no combat operations in Ukraine, why is it awarding its servicemen the highest medals for bravery in combat? (Russia’s Syria operations did not begin until September 2015 and then with no ground troops).
Bellingcat’s analysis shows 4,300 medals “For Distinction in Combat” awarded between July 11, 2014 and February 2016. The number rises to some ten thousand if all four medals for bravery in combat are counted. (Chechnya and Georgia do not play a role during this period, only Ukraine). We do not know what proportion of Russian soldiers who served in Ukraine in regular units received combat medals. If one out of five, then 50,000 Russian regular troops would have served in Ukraine at one time or another during the July 2014 to February 2016 period.
Bellingcat outsmarted the Russian military with its medals count. Apparently, commanders have now forbidden recipients to upload images of their awards. What a strange country that forbids its “heroes” from displaying the honors their country has bestowed upon them!
The Kremlin narrative of “no Russian soldiers” in Ukraine has succeeded in dictating the vocabulary of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The Western news media describe the Ukrainian conflict as a “civil war.” Combatants on the Russian side are “separatists,” “insurgents,” or “rebels,” terms that suggest warriors of conscience fighting for a cause in which they believe. These terms are often softened by adding “Russian-backed,” but the linguistic damage has already been done. Rarely do we encounter language like “Russian troops fighting in Ukraine” or “separatists commanded and supplied by Russian officers and intelligence agents.”