Putin unequivocally declared, on his Direct Line broadcast to the Russian people on April 16, that “the question of whether Russian troops are present in Ukraine…I can tell you outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.”
With such a categorical denial, any report on Russian military deaths in Ukraine would subject the writer to the Kremlin’s full wrath, including four to eight years in prison.
Besides, no established Russian media outlet would cover the story.
Last week, I published an article describing how Russia may have inadvertently posted its casualty statistics in Ukraine.
My piece cited an article from an online journal, Delovaya Zhizn (Business Life), entitled “Compensation of military personnel taking part in military actions in Ukraine in 2014-2015.”
The document spells out the compensation for families of fallen soldiers (three million rubles) and invalids (one and a half million rubles) and compensations received by the families of the 2,000 killed and the 3,200 disabled.
An independent analyst named Ruslan Leviev has argued that the Business Life-obtained document is a fake.
He makes a number of fair arguments that I take seriously.
I have updated my original article to make note of Leviev’s analysis.
Western journalists and commentators, in contrast to their Russian counterparts, must stick to the truth or not be seen as credible.
The subject matter—the number of Russian military deaths in Ukraine—has been declared a state secret in Russia (Ukaz of the President of Russian Federation, No 273.)
The purpose of a secrecy law is not only to conceal something but also to make leaks unverifiable.
Here’s what we do know about Russian casualties in Ukraine.
Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine by the hundreds, and likely thousands
In my article, I wrote that the Business Life figures make sense and confirm what should be obvious to all: Russian troops, both regular and mercenary, are in east Ukraine and are being supplied with heavy weapons by Russia.
Deadly battles–such as those at Donetsk Airport, Ilovaisk, and Debaltseve–have resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.
The Russian dead are secretly transported back to Russia for furtive burials, if their remains can be recovered.
We do not need a Business Life leak to demonstrate Russian losses and expose Putin’s lie.
Fallen soldiers leave survivors.
Civilized societies require that they be buried and their deaths entered into civil registries.
Putin’s making military deaths a state secret is a vain and impossible attempt to suppress the information networks triggered by military deaths.
Do the Business Life figures make sense?
The three million ruble compensation figure has circulated widely.
Independent groups, such as the team of murdered Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia, have sought to pin down the number of casualties.
They both used information from two human rights groups: Cargo 200 (after the refrigerated trucks that transport dead Russian soldiers back to Russia) and regional societies of soldiers’ mothers.
Those human rights organizations have been gathering casualty information despite threats of closure and criminal punishment.
Both Nemtsov and Open Russia document slightly more than two hundred deaths of regular Russian soldiers.
Their figures do not, however, appear to measure total Russian casualties, only confirmed deaths of regular soldiers, excluding mercenaries.
Cargo 200 provides names, photos, addresses, and military records (where available) of Russian regular and mercenary casualties.
It separates Russian armed forces and mercenaries as “killed,” “missing in action,” or “taken prisoner.”
Cargo 200 shows 167 regular troops “killed” and 187 “MIA” and 305 mercenaries “killed” and 796 “MIA.”
Cargo 200 does not know the percentage of total cases it has identified, given the political pressure on it.
Such investigations are stymied by pledges of silence from the families of fallen soldiers.
Families of regular army soldiers may be more closemouthed than those of mercenaries; hence the larger number of mercenary casualties reported.
Cargo 200 may pick up a higher share of MIAs as distraught families turn to it for help.
We do not know whether survivors of mercenaries receive the same compensation as regulars.
We do know that mercenary bodies are transported back to Russia in Cargo 200 trucks.
The Business Life figure of two thousand dead, however, could not have been dismissed out of hand.
If Cargo 200 has picked up, say, one-third of the total, then some 500 regulars and 915 mercenaries have been killed in Ukraine, a total of 1,415.
The Russian-Ukrainian war has been one of artillery battles, which leave behind body parts scattered in remote fields.
Cargo 200 lists almost a thousand MIAs, most of whom are likely dead and would thus roughly double the death toll.
If Russian authorities want to dispute the Cargo 200 reports, let them check the names and addresses.
I am sure they can find many slip-ups, given the hectic and repressed nature of information gathering.
But that will not happen because such inquiries break Russian secrecy laws, risking four to eight years in prison.
Russia’s own estimate of deaths of Ukrainians on the battlefield is in the neighborhood of 2,500.
At least until the invasion of Ukraine by regular Russian troops in August, Ukrainian forces seemed to have the upper hand.
Under such circumstances, there should be a rough parity of battlefield deaths.
In sum, the number of Russian casualties can exceed two thousand if we count both regular soldiers and mercenaries.
The Kremlin will counter that only regular soldiers count and that their numbers are fewer than two thousand.
Should Russians care about the number of their citizens killed in Ukraine or only care if they are regular troops?
I leave that question to the Russian people.
Putin controls all Russian mainstream media; hence, casualty statistics will only leak through non-mainstream sources
Business Life is an obscure aggregator of business news, whose ownership is unclear and appears not to have a fixed business address.
Its website does not contain any reference to a print edition or mail subscription.
Moreover, it does not list its staff, its owner, or any relevant contact information except an online reply form.
While in the West an obscure website might legitimately be regarded with suspicion, we have to remember that Putin cracks down on dissenting press in Russia, and it is therefore understandable that people who post information about what Putin has declared a “state secret” would not want the government to find them.
In response to journalists’ inquiries, on August 26 a Business Life spokesperson, calling himself Anatoly Kravchenko (possibly an alias), declared that Business Life is apolitical and that it based the report on “information received from several sources and private persons appearing to be members of families of fallen soldiers that had received compensation as well as inside information from the defense ministry about a secret government compensation decree.”
The spokesperson did not reveal his sources, declaring that Business Life had removed this information after a warning of sanctions by the Russian government.
The spokesperson also stated that the offending article was posted before Putin’s June 28 decree classifying military deaths as state secrets not just in times of war but also peacetime (Ukaz of the President of Russian Federation, No 273).
Note that the spokesperson did not repudiate the article.
If someone were in possession of official information on Russian military deaths in Ukraine, they would likely turn to an obscure website such as Business Life.
The fact that Business Life lives a shadowy existence would be a plus, to its correspondents, rather than a minus.
For its part, Russia’s propaganda machine specializes in using obscure websites and thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts to deliver its propaganda messages.
Ukraine recently shut down 30,000 such Russian propaganda sites.
My articles at Forbes are regularly spammed by pro-Putin accounts of this type.
There is no need to go through the long list of fakes and fabrications turned out by Putin’s propaganda machine, none of which have been recalled, as far as I know.
Two examples suffice: the Russian defense department’s official briefing at which it claimed that a Ukrainian jet shot down MH17; and a paid actor playing three separate roles from a hospital bed in the area of conflict.
Alternative explanations for the Business Life document
At this point, we cannot dismiss the Leviev analysis that the Business Life document is fake.
But given the behavior of Putin and the Russian government on Ukraine-related matters, we also have to rule out three alternative explanations that seem improbable, but are possible in Putin’s Russia.
Second explanation: The Business Life document is not a fake but is based on insider information that was published on an obscure website by choice.
Upon seeing this alarming information, Russia censors ordered it removed.
It was the removal of the article that attracted the attention of Western observers.
Recall it was the taking down of a key internet message immediately after the shooting down of MH17 (and labeled as a fake by Kremlin-controlled media) that provides a key piece of evidence in the investigation.
Third explanation: The document was deliberately placed on Business Life to lure Western commentators into a discussion in which they discredit themselves with estimates of Russian casualties that are too high.
Fourth explanation: The document was placed on Business Life by Ukrainian intelligence to alarm the Russian people who have been told by the Kremlin there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
Putin should openly admit Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Be it noted that I did not claim to have a way to independently verify the Business Life casualty figures.
I warned that “the Kremlin will claim that the web-cached material is a forgery,” as it has.
But it goes without saying that no such document can be authenticated given the Kremlin’s repressive and dishonest approach to casualty statistics.
The headline of my original article, however, should have reflected this fact, and it does now.
I challenge Putin and the Kremlin to remove the criminal penalties for revealing information on military casualties during “peacetime.”
Such a law can only be interpreted as hiding a deep and dark secret.
Russia has secrecy laws that have no other purpose than to conceal its involvement in Ukraine.
The right way for the matter to be resolved is for Russia to repeal the law and allow independent verification.
If Russia truly wants the facts to come out, let there be open discussion, not whispers exchanged in shadows against the overwhelming chatter of the state media.
Better still, Russia should disclose the actual number of Russian casualties for whom the government is providing compensation.
But I forget.
The official number is zero.