Is Vladimir Putin covering up the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine?

WASHINGTON – With Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers are also all but certainly dying there. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be mounting a campaign to find out that his constituents don’t find out about that unpleasant and politically explosive fact.

Over the past week, there have been reports across Russian media of a sudden and unexplained surge in the number of killed or wounded Russian military servicemen. TV Dozhd is maintaining an online list of Russian soldiers killed, wounded, or detained in Ukraine, and on Friday, TV Dozhd reported that the bodies of two Russian infantrymen had recently been returned to their home in Nizhniy Novgorod, a city east of Moscow, after they had been killed by a mine in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which has been the scene of intense fighting.

Moreover, TV Dozhd reported that an investigation carried out by the activist group Soldiers’ Mothers found that 200 Russian soldiers had purportedly been forced to sign non-disclosure forms and contracts as conscripts to deploy in Ukraine.

Soldiers’ Mothers has been taking the lead in trying to find answers about Russian casualties in Ukraine, but on Friday, the group’s St. Petersburg chapter was put under administrative control by the Ministry of Justice and classified as a “foreign agent” by the government. Soldiers’ Mothers rose to prominence for their activism on behalf of Russian soldiers fighting in Chechnya during the 1990s, when large casualties dramatically undermined popular support for the government of Boris Yeltsin.

On Tuesday, Russia’s presidential human rights council said about 100 wounded servicemen had been airlifted to a military hospital in St Petersburg for treatment and that nine soldiers were killed at a training range in Rostov region. However, little further explanation was provided.

Yet, despite the fog surrounding the cause of the soldiers’ deaths and injuries, reports have begun to surface of coffins returning from Ukraine. Earlier this week, two freshly dug graves were discovered near the northwestern Russian town of Pskov, home to a well-known paratrooper division. The graves were spotted by Pskovskaya Guberniya, a local newspaper. The names of the dead have been removed from the graves and relatives of the officers have reportedly been warned not to talk to the media. The paper’s journalists who discovered the graves say they were attacked at the cemetery by what they described as “thugs.”

In another possible indication of the Pskov paratroopers’ possible involvement in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin gave the Order of Suvorov to the Pskov-based 76th airborne division on August 18, for “bravery and heroism” while performing unspecified tasks. According to TV Dozhd’s list, four members of the unit have been killed in fighting in Ukraine.

Though Moscow steadfastly denies its soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, Russian troops were captured in eastern Ukraine last weekend, claiming they inadvertently strayed into Ukrainian territory. The members of the Russian 98th Airborne Division are now being held in Kiev, and when news broke of their capture, their mothers went on camera to plead with Putin to ensure their sons’ safe return.

Putin has seen his approval ratings sky-rocket amid the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but mounting casualties are likely to undercut the political benefits Putin has accrued from his stand-off with the West. “Short, bloodless, victorious wars are popular everywhere,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. “It’s only afterwards, when the casualties begin to mount, that people start to ask, ‘Was that really worth it?'”

Russia’s unwillingness to honestly report on the deaths of its soldiers harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, where the fate of servicemen returning from Afghanistan was covered up. An estimated 13,000 Soviet troops were killed in the Afghanistan campaign, but the full scope of the casualties did not become clear until after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. This policy continued during the Russian Federation and its two wars in Chechnya, where the Russian military also suffered heavy losses, the full-scope of which are still not fully known.

With more and more coffins returning from Ukraine as the conflict intensifies, it should be no surprise that the Kremlin is pushing back against the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, whose activities are beginning to counter the government’s narrative of events. But with a mountain of evidence becoming available to the Russian public, the Kremlin won’t be able to keep the truth buried for much longer.

Elias Groll contributed to this article.