BERLIN — The secret funerals are back. So are motherly measures. As the Ukraine-Russia conflict enters its sixth month, there are signs from inside Russia that the nation’s nerves are beginning to fray.
Evidence of the extent of Russian military involvement in Ukraine has been dribbling out for months. Last week, it reached a level at which Ukrainian and many Western officials finally referred to it as invasion. But recently, from media accounts and more, it also has been leaking into Russia itself, despite an official government policy that what’s happening in Ukraine is all about Ukraine.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian dissident who was jailed for a decade and released suddenly last winter by Russian President Vladimir Putin, posted a statement on his website Thursday saying it was time to acknowledge reality. “We are fighting Ukraine — for real,” he wrote. “We are sending soldiers and equipment.”
But, he then asked, why is Russia not publicly acknowledging this? His answer: This effort is nothing more than the latest example of a long-standing tradition.
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“All this time our authorities have been lying through their teeth, just like they did about Afghanistan back in the ’80s; and about Chechnya in the ’90s,” he wrote. “Today, they are lying about Ukraine. And while it goes on, we have been burying those on both sides who, until recently, we held as co-workers, friends and family.”
The reasons Khodorkovsky, and according to reports from a growing number of those inside the Russian information bubble, believe their nation is lying to them are growing.
In recent days: After more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed in a single battle inside Ukraine in mid-August, media reports noted that their bodies were being returned with death certificates structured to make it appear they died elsewhere. In that same battle, an additional 300 were reported to have been injured.
A group of Russian mothers realized that instead of the official military story — that their sons had been sent on a training mission in Russia — their sons were now prisoners of war in Ukraine.
The estimate of at least 1,000 active Russian troops now fighting in Ukraine was essentially confirmed by the head of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists, who explained their presence in the middle of what he depicts as a civil war between Ukrainians by saying they were using their vacation days to join the fight.
On Friday, Russia officially labeled a St. Petersburg soldiers’ mothers group as “foreign agents,” an insulting label requiring them to note this status in fundraising and information efforts. In recent weeks, stories have begun to appear in Russian media about mothers around Russia confused by the seemingly secret deaths and burials of their military sons.
One group of mothers, reported on in the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung, noticed large numbers of Ukrainian comments on the social-media pages of their sons, and thus learned that their sons had been taken captive in Ukraine.
The mothers insist they were told their sons were heading from their base four hours north of Moscow to a southern base not far from the Ukraine border. After learning their sons had been captured inside Ukraine, they were told it was a mistake. Their sons, the government said, had gotten lost and strayed more than 10 miles beyond the shared border by accident.
One mother, recalling how in Chechnya it often came down to mothers themselves heading into conflict zones to negotiate the return of their captured soldier sons, told the newspaper: “If the government won’t act, it looks like once again it’s time for motherly measures.”