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In Russia, Ukraine Conflict Hits Home With Secret Funerals, Missing Men

A group of Russian servicemen, who were detained by the Ukrainian authorities in southeastern Ukraine, arrive at a news conference in Kyiv on August 27.
A group of Russian servicemen, who were detained by the Ukrainian authorities in southeastern Ukraine, arrive at a news conference in Kyiv on August 27.

In early spring, Vladimir Putin deployed soldiers without insignia into the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea to ensure a quick annexation of the territory.

After a month of denying their very existence, the Russian president nonchalantly acknowledged that the thousands of well-armed fighters, who had previously been cheekily referred to as "little green men," were in fact Russian troops.

Decried in the West, Russians gave the move near unanimous support. A territory was won through military might -- and an overwhelming referendum vote that has not been recognized in the West -- but without a fight.

But now, as Moscow reinvigorates a flailing pro-Russian separatist insurgency with a barely concealed incursion into southeastern Ukraine, indications are that Russian military men are dying. And as captured Russian paratroopers are paraded on Ukrainian television and servicemen are buried in secrecy, some Russians are asking a seemingly simple question:

"Are we at war?"

The answer to the question, originally posed in an editorial in the "Vedomosti" business daily, is one that is becoming increasingly obvious for military families. It is the details that they say are not forthcoming.

In Kostroma, 1,300 kilometers from Russia's border with eastern Ukraine, family members of a group of 10 Russian paratroopers captured in Ukraine say all their information has come from secondhand, online sources.

One mother, Olga Pochtoyeva, says when she originally approached officials with photos on her son's Vkontakte page that appeared to show he had been taken prisoner in Ukraine, her claims were dismissed as "provocations." "We showed them [these pictures] and they didn't believe it," she says. "It's Photoshop, they told us. I'm sorry, I'd never mistake my son's eyebrows for photoshop."

WATCH: RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to relatives of the Russian paratroopers detained in Ukraine, who said that they have received very little information about the men's situation and have been told not to believe what they see in the media.

Families Of Detained Russian Soldiers Plead For Information
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But the paratroopers, who have been paraded in front of cameras by Ukrainian authorities at least three times, are only the most public face of Russian military involvement.

Members of Russia's Presidential Council on Human Rights have asked Russia's Investigative Committee to verify information about the deaths of nine military contractors, while the Stavropol Committee of Soldiers' Mothers has compiled a list of 400 Russian troops who it says have recently been either killed or wounded.

The claims come amid evidence of secret funerals for Russian servicemen, reports of which began with small drips of information from Pskov, a small city in northern Russia.

A freshly dug grave is seen at the Vybuty cemetery in the Pskov region on August 27.
A freshly dug grave is seen at the Vybuty cemetery in the Pskov region on August 27.

On August 25 families buried Leonid Kichatkin and Aleksandr Osipov, two Russian paratroopers from a regiment based in the city. Some of the brigade's gear and documents had been spotted by Ukrainian journalists days earlier in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.

State media did not provide coverage of the funerals and independent reporters who had come to inspect the paratroopers' gravestones were accosted by unidentified men.

"It was more like a threat than any sort of demand," Ilya Vasyunin, a journalist for the online Russian Planet news site, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "They wanted to make sure we understood that there was no need to visit the cemetery or dig any deeper into the situation."

The names on the gravestones, which showed the dates of death as August 19 and 20, have since reportedly been removed.

There has been a near complete blackout in coverage of the funerals by Russia's state-controlled media and a message on Kichatkin's VKontakte page, apparently from his wife, which said the serviceman had been killed, has been removed. The families have since been unwilling to speak with media.

Meanwhile, reports of new funerals continue.

On August 25, Anton Korolenko, a commander -- apparently from the same Pskov-based paratrooper division -- was buried in Voronezh. A local journalist told RFE/RL's Russian Service that an unidentified family member had claimed the circumstances behind his death were a "secret," but that "he did not die in vain."

And in Russia's Urals republic of Bashkortostan, the mother of Marsel Arattanov told the independent Dozhd TV station that she had buried her son on August 22 after being ordered by the authorities to claim his body in Rostov, a Russian city near the border with Ukraine. "He was not on our territory when he died," Venera Arattanova said. "We have heard that they went to Ukrainian territory."

Asked about the funerals, Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told the ITAR-TASS news agency the information was "being checked by the agencies concerned."

A NATO official said on August 28 that there were more than 1,000 Russian soldiers now serving with separatists in Ukraine. The head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, Valentina Melnikova, said the number was as high as 15,000. And Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," admitted that there were members of the Russian military serving with the rebels, though he said they had come during their "vacations."

Although Russians have been largely supportive of pro-Russian separatists, in a survey conducted by the government-backed Public Opinion Foundation, just 5 percent of respondents said they would favor sending troops into Ukraine.

Families of soldiers still unaccounted for fear the worst. "It's absolutely ridiculous," says Ella Polyakova, a member of Putin's advisory council on human rights, who so far has been unsuccessful in using official channels to gather information. "People are demanding answers -- where are their sons?"

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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