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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Russia Update: August 28, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Russian Blogger Critical of War in Ukraine Says Article on "2,000 Soldiers Killed" is Fake

An article titled “Russia Inadvertently Posts Its Casualties In Ukraine: 2,000 Deaths, 3,200 Disabled” posted by Paul Roderick Gregory on the Forbes Opinion page claims that a "censored" news article recovered from Google cache reveals that the Russian government has unwittingly revealed high numbers of Russian casualties in the war in Ukraine.

According to an article posted to an obscure news site called Delovaya Zhizn' ["Business Life"] about pay hikes for Russian soldiers and other compensations, 2,000 Russian families were paid death benefits for their relatives killed in the war in Ukraine, and 3,200 received benefits for soldiers wounded in Ukraine.

The link to the web cache supplied by Gregory soon pointed to altered text as such Google caches do not last forever.

But a copy of the original could be found on the Internet Archive from August 22 with the unaltered text describing benefits for 2,000 killed and 3,200 wounded.

The article discusses a new government measure to raise the pay of soldiers and quotes Viktor Zavarzin, member of the State Duma's Committee on Defense, saying that the 2015-2017 budget allowed for a steady rise in expenditure on defense -- currently 3.3 trillion rubles (about $50 billion) or 21.2% of the budget or 4.2% of the GDP, up from 3.4% last year. He mentioned pay rises of 5.5% for soldiers and an increase in housing subsidies.

The section quoting him then ends, and a sub-head of the article can be seen (translated by The Interpreter), "Compensation for Servicemen Participating in Combat Maneuvers in Ukraine in 2014-2015"

This is followed by a paragraph stating that 3 million rubles (about $50,000) would be paid out for families of servicemen killed on combat maneuvers in Ukraine, and 1.5 million (about $30,000)for those who became disabled. Contractors would earn 1,800 rubles ($27) for each day they spent in the combat zone.

As of February 1, 2015, the figure for payouts of compensation was "more than 2,000 families of soldiers killed and 3,200 servicemen severely wounded and declared disabled."

In our view, the claimed number of deaths seemed high, especially as the date was before the battle of Debaltsevo, prior to the Minsk-2 "ceasefire" which began February 12, and other subsequent offensives such as the June 3rd attack on Marinka and nearby towns.

It also seemed odd that this report had not been covered by the independent media in Russia, if such a slip was indeed made in a budget document or claimed even by an obscure web site. NTV and other state channels discussed the increase in defense spending and pay and housing for soldiers, but said nothing about any death or injury compensations. And they wouldn't, as this topic is banned under a decree passed in May by President Vladimir Putin making it a crime to divulge casualties in peacetime "special operations."

Critics of the war who have closely covered the conflict said the web site piece seemed fake -- it's not just that it's obscure, no one had ever heard of it.


As for the numbers given, various independent media such as TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta and groups such as the Soldiers' Mothers have attempted to keep lists of soldiers killed. But with attacks on reporters and notably the Pskov politician Lev Shlosberg, brutally beaten this year -- and most of all the high-profile assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the eve of an anti-war march in March -- the effort to track "Cargo-200" (as the bodies of soldiers killed in action are called) has been discouraged. Only a few activists and bloggers are left trying to keep the record and investigate social media reports.

Zabytiy Polk (Forgotten Regiment,) a group chaired by Elena Vasileva who founded the Facebook group Gruz 200 iz Ukrainy v Rossiyu (Cargo 200 from Ukraine to Russia), has maintained a list last updated on August 25, 2015 and posted to Facebook which shows 582 killed for whom there is at least a full name and place of death, 39 incomplete reports, and 887 soldiers reported missing. The list of 582 also has some incomplete records and at least one case of a soldier who was found alive.

The list of 887 is even more incomplete, sometimes with only a first name or a call sign, and the activists acknowledge that some of them could be Ukrainian citizens who fought with the Russian-backed separatists, not Russian soldiers.

Looking through lists compiled earlier by TV Rain and Gordonua.com as well as Open Russia and comparing it to the Forgotten Regiment's list, we can see that about half the entries have been added since the battle of Debaltsevo and not all are confirmed with actual contact of relatives by reporters on the scene. In short, there are no more than about 600 cases that have been recorded adequately in order to enable verification.

To be sure, in a secret war in which the Kremlin is going to great lengths to hide information, there could be many more. Especially given that Nemtsov's colleagues estimated the number of Russian troops to be as high as 10,000 in May, and currently the Ukrainian government is saying the Russian occupying forces are as high as 33,000. Even so, given estimates of 1,800-2,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war, it seems unlikely that as many Russians were killed, when Russia is the aggressor and has tank and troop superiority.

Russian blogger Ruslan Leviev has declared the Delovaya Zhizn' post a fake. Leviev is a critic of the war who has posted a lot on his LiveJournal page about his findings of proof of the Russian presence in Ukraine. This includes an article about three GRU soldiers killed, whose bodies were returned to Russia for burial, all of whose graves, Leviev and his fellow blogger Vadim Korovin, with readers' help, were able to discover and photograph.

We would have to agree that the piece is not only weakly sourced but suspect, although this should not distract from the very real issue of hundreds of Russian soldiers killed in the war whose deaths constitute proof of Russian presence in Ukraine and expose the claims of the Kremlin that they have no troops there.

We found that the IP look-ups on this site only showed that it had a private registration and no writers names were shown. Leviev writes that Russian journalists were able to dig up an email for this site that wasn't indicated under "contacts," which has only a form, and wrote to bs-life.ru@rambler.ru.  A reply came from the owner who gave his name as Anatoly Kravchenko. He said the site was founded in 2011 as a private project to cover legal and financial topics and had nothing to do with politics and did not support any political party.

As for the piece on the death and injury benefits, he said that it had been published before the May 25 decree banning the disclosure of casualties from "special operations," and the information had come from several sources, members of families of servicemen killed in action, and what he characterized as "inside information from the Defense Ministry of a secret decree of the Government on payment of such compensation" whose sources he would not disclose.

He said the article was removed after receiving a warning that his article violated Russian law, and that if it were not removed, the site could be removed from Russian search engines and the domain could be blocked.

Yet he couldn't produce a copy of the warning and there was no such warning reported by Roskomnadzor, the state censor. It's important to note that attention to this piece didn't come during the weeks it was posted, but only after it was removed. Any blogger or reporter with this information would understand how important it would be to give it coverage, yet there were no articles in the independent Russian media or blogosphere; it was covered first by Western and Ukrainian sites.

Leviev pointed out that the email address was typical of spam sites. The name of the person was fairly common in Russia; Leviev happened to know a man by that sane name who was active in the opposition who said he wasn't the site owner. Leviev believed it was possible that the site owner used this name to give to inquiring reporters figuring that they would assume it was the same person as the activist.

He points out that this site is a typical "web site in a box" made from a template using the Russian equivalent of Squarespace. We could note that its name is similar to many such instant sites mean to drive traffic to click ads and make revenue for their owners -- a bright green dollar bill sign shows up on its URL in the browser. This particular site was described as making $6 a day from Google AdSense even before their sensational publication about the death benefits.

Leviev dug further and found the scripts for a lead generator for the ads called Leadia.ru -- each time you access this page, you can see a supposedly "live online" lawyer appearing who offers you advice. We noticed from multiple visit that any time of the day or night, the same lawyers would appear supposedly "live online." That's because there isn't any real lawyer there, as Leviev explains, it's a robot that will help gather leads for site owners to sell to Leadia.ru.

2015-08-28 23:42:59

Basically, Leviev concluded that the site owner had concocted the story -- and added the dramatic effect of the "censored" text -- knowing that this always attracted interest. He didn't believe that the claim itself was part of the "information war," but that it was a cynical exploitation of the existence of such a "war" to make cash.

Leviev noted that Russia Today has run an article debunking the fake, but then they are a Kremlin propaganda outlet and don't cover the truth about Russian war casualties. Leviev is hoping that his credibility as a war critic will convince people that the story was a fake and has asked other bloggers to circulate his debunking, posting a link to an English-language translation of his post:



Looking over this material, we think it might well be possible that there is a secret Defense Ministry decree ordering the payment of compensation to families simply to silence them. As we document in a report on proof of the Russian presence in Ukraine which will be released next month, when word has gotten out, it's often because soldiers' families were not getting this compensation. But the same bureaucracy that made the decree secret is unlikely to put the expenditures in regular public records of the budget, rather than conceal the payments.

As Leviev notes in a reply to a comment from a reader, the classification of fighters in the war is difficult because some begin as volunteers then return home before signing up as contractors and returning as serviceman, or the opposite.

Ultimately the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces -- the very official bodies that send the wreaths to put on these soldiers' graves -- could reliably provide the numbers, but they will never do that. So in the meantime it remains for journalists, bloggers and activists to try to compile this record using social media.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
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