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 [italics by author] 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 published the 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 reported the presence of Russian troops in the Donbas for over two years.
Putin has no choice but to deny the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. According to the Kremlin’s narrative, Russia is only an interested by-stander in Ukraine’s “civil war” in which brave “separatists” or “insurgents” are defending their homes from rabid neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists. Russia is not at war with Ukraine; so how can Russian soldiers be involved when Russia has no combat operations in Ukraine? But, argues Putin, Russia cannot keep its patriots from lending a voluntary hand to their Novorossiya brethren. Yes, there are Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine, but they have nothing to do with Russia and its military forces.
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 gathered images of the medals and dates of the awards posted on social media by proud soldier recipients. Insofar as the Russian medals engrave the cumulative number of medals as of the award date, the numbering system reveals the number of medals awarded between two award dates. The accompanying figure shows awards for distinction in combat granted by the Russian Ministry of Defense between July 2014 and February 2016. They correlate closely with known military operations and with the Minsk 2 “cease-fire.”
Donetsk Airport (September 2014-January 2015) and Ilovaisk (August to September 2014) Russia’s winter offensive culminated in the slaughter of Ukrainian troops caught in the Debaltseve cauldron (January 2015). These defeats at the hands of regular Russian units forced Ukraine into the unfavorable Minsk 2 agreement of February 2015. More than a year and a half later, fighting continues along the “cease fire” zone, casualties continue, the border remains under Russian control, and awards for distinction in combat are much lower.
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!
Thoughtful people might ask: Why bother with yet another proof that Putin lied about Russian troops in Ukraine. The answer should be obvious to all except fools, they say. The Ukraine military definitely understands that they were being mowed down by regular Russian regiments starting in July of 2014, escalating to the slaughter at Debaltseve. Russian military and intelligence generals have been killed on the field of battle, and such deaths do not go unnoticed. Regular Russian troops have been captured. Putin’s lie is obvious, so why go through the trouble of debunking it?
There are four reasons why disproving Putin’s “not one Russian soldier in Ukraine” lie is important:
First: a majority of the Russian people believe it
Russians concede that Russian citizens are fighting in Ukraine but accept Putin’s story that they are volunteers or mercenaries. For Russian citizens this is an important distinction: Volunteers and mercenaries have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way; their deaths or maiming therefore is a matter of personal choice. It is another matter entirely if young conscripts are fighting and dying in Ukraine for no apparent reason.
Second: Russian soldiers = Russian invasion
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.”
Third: ‘civil war’ narrative puts separatists on equal footing with Kyiv
Third, the fiction that the Ukraine army is being either defeated or fought to a standstill by “separatists” elevates Ukraine’s opponents to an independent political status deserving of a place at the table. The vocabulary of the Russian-Ukraine War lies at the heart of an eventual peace settlement. Will it be Putin’s federalization that gives the “separatists” veto power over Ukrainian policy? Or will it be Ukraine’s decentralization that preserves Ukraine as a unitary state while giving regions more autonomy over local affairs?
Fourth: Denial gives the West an excuse for inaction
Fourth, the Kremlin’s fig leaves that cast slight shadows of doubt on the truth provide a disorganized, timid, and even cowardly West a reason for inaction. We all know that a Russian missile shot down MH17 and that there are regular Russian troops in east Ukraine, but as long as there is a one in a thousand chance of another explanation, we have a reason to hold back. After all, isn’t Russia a “great nation?” Shouldn’t we give their explanations a hearing no matter how crazy?
There will be no peace until we call the Russian narrative for what it is – a lie. In the meantime, the words we use matter in determining the eventual outcome and burning Putin’s fig leaves remains a worthwhile activity.
By Paul Roderick Gregory, Forbes Opinion