Report details the Kremlin’s war casualties
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Russian troops make up a small but important role in the war in eastern Ukraine. During two periods of heavy fighting, Russian army soldiers played a pivotal role in stopping Ukrainian troops from retaking separatist-held territory.
Around 220 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine. The number could be higher.
That’s all according to the newly-released report by the late Russian liberal politician Boris Nemtsov. Gunmen murdered Nemtsov as he walked across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow on Feb. 27.
Nemtsov and his aides based the report on open-source analysis, interviews with family members who lost loved ones in the war, news reports and quotes from the separatist commanders themselves. It’s the most comprehensive analysis so far of Russian aid to the separatists, which is an obscure and largely hidden part of the war.
There’s two major aspects to Russia’s intervention. First, there’s the regular Russian army. These units are small compared to the overall size of the separatist force — a few thousand Russian soldiers among potentially 30,000 separatists. But they’ve had an outsized effect on the course of war.
“The regular part of the Russian army in many ways determined the military successes of the separatists in eastern Ukraine,” the report stated.
Last summer, the Ukrainian military launched a major offensive into separatist territory. It was part of an attempt to cut direct land connections between the de facto rebel capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Russian army intervened, pouring tanks, armored vehicles and artillery into the conflict — which separatist commander Alexander Zakharchenko publicly credited with halting the Ukrainian advance.
These Russian units include soldiers from the 331st Parachute Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division. Other Russian units — mainly ground and artillery units — sent soldiers to work as independent “contractors.”
Russian soldiers died “in two periods” in the war, the report stated. “The first wave of coffins went to Russia in the summer of 2014, when the Ukrainian army went on the offensive.”
The second “wave” occurred in January and February this year. This largely occurred due to fighting near the town of Debaltsevo, which Ukrainian troops had occupied. The troops formed a “pocket” jutting into separatist lines.
Mark Galeotti, a Russia security expert at New York University, wrote that Russia’s casualties probably won’t pose a major political problem for the Kremlin — at least not yet.
“That said, most of the forces there are paratroopers or Spetsnaz, the cream of the Russian military,” Galeotti wrote on his blog. “If the toll continues, never mind escalates, even if it is not a political issue, then it will begin to gnaw away at military effectiveness.”
The second aspect of Russia’s intervention is through supplying “volunteers” to the separatist battalions. This is in addition to supplying equipment and weapons.
The report alleges some of these volunteers are soldiers in the Russian army. Others are veterans and older men with military experience. It further alleges the existence of a complicated and opaque financial system whereby money from Russian investors makes its way into Ukraine to pay soldiers’ salaries.
The network involves veterans’ organizations, state-backed Chechen militant groups and separatist battalions in Ukraine. The men receive around $1,200 per month — a good salary for a Russian soldier — to fight.
The fighters meet in Russia, where they receive training and older weapons from Soviet-era stockpiles. The total cost for salaries, equipment and maintenance could be as high as $1.3 billion since the war began.
All of this is illegal under Russian laws prohibiting mercenary activities.
“However, the Russian investigative authorities pursue only those Russian citizens who are involved in the fighting on the side of the Ukrainian security services,” the report adds.
Which all raises the question of why this strategy? Why not something more like Russia’s February 2014 invasion of Crimea. Your guess is as good as ours. But we can say that the Kremlin sees the war in eastern Ukraine as a fundamentally different kind of conflict than Crimea.
Russia invaded and outright annexed Crimea in a lightning operation marked by naval and airborne forces. Russia justified the invasion by saying that fascists had taken over Ukraine and that Crimea is historically part of Russia.
To be fair, the historical claim for Crimea is stronger than for eastern Ukraine. The Russian Empire first annexed the peninsula in the 18th century. The Soviet Union then transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954.
Not every Russian with influence agrees.
Alexander Dugin, a far-right Russian activist and ideologue, lost his job as a sociologist at Moscow State University after criticizing Putin’s strategy in eastern Ukraine, a territory Dugin believes is at the center of a civilizational struggle between East and West.
“For me there is no difference between Crimea and Donbass in the eastern Ukraine — Novorossiya — and for [the] political establishment, there is a difference,” Dugin said during a teleconference at Texas A&M University in late April.
Which is to say that the Kremlin might not want eastern Ukraine to be part of Russia. At least not right now.
But by sponsoring militants to seize and hold territory within a pro-Western state, the Kremlin does gain leverage over that state. If Ukraine wants to join NATO, then Russia can gobble up the parts of Ukraine that’s already fallen outside the central government’s control.
Another question concerns planning — did Russia plan the Crimea invasion years in advance? The Nemtsov report argues the Kremlin had just been waiting to grab Crimea, and moved when the opportunity presented itself.
Putin, the report alleges, also launched the invasion as a means to improve his approval ratings. But Galeotti is skeptical. Sure, Russia likely had a war plan. Many countries have plans for all kinds of wars it doesn’t want to fight.
“I understand there was a long-standing plan in the vaults of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, and that as soon as the friendly regime in Kiev looked in trouble, it was taken out and updated,” Galeotti wrote.
“But I also understand that the final stage was something of a rush job. This was an opportunist move, not part of some long-term strategy.”