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Report With Tally Of 'Russian War Casualties' Causes Stir

Crosses marked only with numbers stand on the graves of unknown pro-Russian separatists at a cemetery in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in February.
Crosses marked only with numbers stand on the graves of unknown pro-Russian separatists at a cemetery in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in February.

A Russian-language website has caused a stir with a report asserting that more than 2,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Delovaya Zhizn, which translates as Business Life, published the information online in March, as part of a larger story of how the Russian federal budget was compensating relatives of servicemen killed in the line of duty.

The report went unnoticed until Ukrainian websites and Forbes magazine's online edition drew attention to it this week. Two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia and Ukraine -- Michael McFaul and Steven Pifer, respectively -- tweeted out mention of the report.

The issue of Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine is critical for the Kremlin, which has routinely denied that its military forces are involved in the conflict between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In some cases, the Kremlin has said that any Russians fighting in Ukraine are merely volunteers.

In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree classifying Russian military casualties in peacetime "special operations" as a state secret, and prohibiting their publication.

Research released earlier that month by Russia's political opposition tallied at least 220 Russian soldiers who had died in Ukraine. The United Nations has placed the death toll in the conflict that began in April 2014 at more than 6,400, including civilians and combatants, and said it may be much higher.

As of August 26, most of the original story was still posted on the Delovaya Zhizn site, though the material specifically related to Russian casualties had been removed. Cached versions, however, showed the article reporting that as of February 1, more than 2,000 families had received compensation for relatives killed in Ukraine. Another 3,200 soldiers wounded in battle had also received compensation, it said.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the figures. A person who responded to messages sent to Delovaya Zhizn's e-mail address identified himself as Anatoly Kravchenko, and said that the website had received the casualty figures from relatives of dead servicemen as well as "insider information" from the Russian Defense Ministry, but declined to identify any specific sources.

The person also said the site had removed the information about casualties from the article after receiving a warning from Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, saying that the site was in breach of Russian law and threatening consequences if the article was not removed or revised.

A phone call to Roskomnadzor's office in Moscow was not immediately returned.

In the period leading up to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, masked, camouflaged soldiers appeared abruptly around the Black Sea peninsula. The soldiers wore no insignias and the Kremlin repeatedly denied they were Russian servicemen.

Later on, however, Putin acknowledged that the soldiers were Russian and a holiday was established to honor them.

In an effort to discredit Russian claims, Ukraine has frequently distributed photos and videos of captured soldiers who identify themselves as active-duty Russian servicemen.

In a video released earlier this month by Ukraine's main security agency, a man captured by Ukrainian forces near the city of Donetsk said he had served 19 years in the Russian Army and appealed directly to Putin to secure his release.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Current Time TV
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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