Moscow has long denied that its troops are fighting in Ukraine. When foreigners come knocking with pesky questions, the Russian reply is always incredulous: “Who, us?” But for a domestic audience, the strategy has been a little different. The Kremlin’s control of television allows it to lay out the prevailing narrative for most Russians, and they wield that control very effectively. Vladimir Putin’s revelation almost three months ago that, in fact, he had sent Russian troops into Ukraine to annex Crimea after denying it for the better part of a year barely raised an eyebrow at home. This was due in large part to the tidal wave of nationalistic propaganda that accompanied the reveal. The annexation was portrayed as righting a historical wrong, and Putin’s decision to intervene as a brave act of realizing the nation’s dream.
Controlling the narrative about the war in eastern Ukraine, however, is more complicated for the Kremlin. While the annexation of Crimea remains relatively popular (as of this February, 52% supported it “definitely” and another 32% supported it “probably”, according to the independent Levada Center), there is little apparent appetite among the Russian public for the “Novorossiya” project—the annexation of territory spanning southern Ukraine, which in some formulations could create a land bridge all the way to the breakaway region of Transdnistria in Moldova. The Kremlin, which runs one of the most sophisticated public opinion polling operations in all of Russia, has probably figured this out, and has in recent weeks started talking down the prospects for deeper involvement:
“At all levels, including the presidential one and in other formats, we say that we want [the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine] to become part of Ukraine,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta last week.
“They have unveiled their own constitution project in which they talk about their status as envisaged by the Minsk agreements: The republics will become part of Ukraine, followed by constitutional reform that will solidify this status into a permanent one,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin also knows that it cannot actually pull out completely, since it suspects the rebels would sooner or later get rolled by a Ukrainian army that is, in fits and starts, slowly reforming itself. Thus the Kremlin has to go to great lengths to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability: while acknowledging its troops are fighting abroad could inflame global public opinion and seriously dim the prospects of sanctions being lifted in the near term, the real threat is at home, where questions could start getting asked and approval ratings could begin to drop.
That’s the context within which to view one of the more macabre bits of news coming out of Ukraine this week: that Russia has been deploying mobile cremation vans to get rid of the bodies of its dead troops in the field, rather than bringing them back to Russia for burial. It also helps explain how the two captured Spetsnaz soldiers being held by Ukraine present a very special liability for the Kremlin. From Reuters’ must-read profile, it appears the Russian authorities want nothing to do with them:
In an interview from his bed, Alexandrov, wearing a hospital-issue green T-shirt and with several days stubble on his face, told Reuters he felt alone and trapped between these vast forces. He said the Russian consul in Kiev had visited him and Yerofeyev, but had been a let-down. The two captives had hoped Moscow would get them home in a prisoner exchange, but they said the consul had been non-committal.
“I asked him a few questions. There was no answer to them. He said that when he has the answers, he will come again and let us know what they are,” said Alexandrov, whose leg was shattered in a gun battle.
The Russian embassy in Kiev had no comment on Friday. In an earlier statement it had described Alexandrov and Yerofeyev as “Russian citizens detained in the Luhansk region” and said they were receiving proper medical treatment. “Embassy officials plan to visit the compatriots regularly,” the statement said.
Independent efforts to shine a light on Russian involvement in Ukraine, such as those of the recently murdered Boris Nemtsov, reach a depressingly small number of Russians. But the Kremlin is nevertheless leaving little to chance. Earlier this week, Putin signed a sweeping law allowing the state to crack down on “undesirable” NGOs. And yesterday, Putin signed a decree expanding Russia’s state secrets law to make the leaking of “information which reveals personnel losses in times of war and in peace time while a special operation is being conducted” a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. The Nemtsov report, released yesterday in English by the Atlantic Council, relied on interviews with veterans and families of those killed in fighting in Ukraine. “It appears that the position of just denying there are Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine cannot last any longer,” Kirill Koroteev, a lawyer with Memorial, the human rights group, told the Financial Times.
Even a decade and a half into the era of Putinism and its “vertical of power,” Russia still isn’t strictly a totalitarian state—nor is it as authoritarian as a country like China. But it’s heading down that slippery slope, lubricated by the lies it’s told in the course of its Ukrainian adventures.