On January 31, 2015 Boris Nemtsov wrote the following on his Facebook page: “The work of the opposition today is to enlighten and to tell the truth. The truth is that Putin is the war and the crisis.” The idea of writing an expert report entitled Putin, War can be attributed to Nemtsov himself. He believed that it was essential that this report be written and that it be printed for mass distribution to the citizens in Russia in order to combat the lies and propaganda created by the Kremlin. He collected information with great energy, but was killed on February 27, 2015. The task of assembling the materials of the report was left to his colleagues, most notably Ilya Yashin and Olga Shorina. What follows is a short summary of six of the eleven chapters of Nemtsov’s report, published online in Moscow two weeks ago.
Why Does Putin Need the War?
In 2011 Putin’s ratings were falling. The Kremlin feared that it would be very difficult for him to win the presidential election outright and that there would be a runoff. Putin was reelected without a runoff, but not without massive voter fraud. This generated large protests throughout the Russian Federation. During the summer of 2013, Putin was unable to garner an approval rate greater than 45 percent.
Although the annexation of the Crimea was in the planning for quite a while, Putin delivered populist speeches in order to bring up his ratings. Russian Special Forces were already operative in the Crimea, and Crimean business was granted lucrative funding by the Kremlin. The Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv gave Putin the opportunity he needed to fully invade and annex the Crimea. As a result, the Russian people rewarded him with record ratings for restoring the Crimea to Russia
Of course the downside for Putin and for Russia are economic sanctions and global isolation.
Lies and Propaganda
If anyone intends to write Putin’s biography that person will realize that Putin never had a political career, but rather a career as a TV star. Putin’s life depends upon a state controlled media image of himself and of his political policies. In 2004 Putin revived the heroic narrative of the Soviet defeat of fascism, with annual May 9th celebrations and the massive distribution of St. George ribbons, a Tsarist era decoration for military heroism. The media continued to build on this story to such a degree that it has become a propagandistic weapon against Ukraine. Russian media has never accepted the legitimacy of the post Yanukovych government and has deemed it a “junta.” The media portrays Ukraine as a hotbed of fascists who have overrun the country. At one point, stories about the “Right Sector” garnered higher ratings on Russian television than coverage of Russia’s own political parties (even though the “Right Sector” received only 2% of the vote in the national elections).
And Russian media also fabricated a story about a boy being crucified by Ukrainian fascists in the Donbass.
On March 4, 2014 during an interview with a correspondent from Bloomberg News, Putin was questioned about the similarities of the uniforms of the men who were blocking Ukrainian armed forces in the Crimea and that of Russian regular forces. He responded by saying that uniforms in former Soviet countries are very similar, and that these were just “locals” who probably purchased the uniforms in an army surplus store.
A few weeks later, on April 17, 2014 during a town hall meeting with Russians, Putin disclosed that the “green men” were actually Russian Special Forces operating in the Crimea with the intent of defending the rights of those seeking Crimean independence.
Igor Girkin (aka Strelnikov), the former defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, arrived in Crimea on February 21, 2014 and stated, “I did not see any support of the government in Simferopol [for independence from Ukraine], where I was at that time. The separatists gathered them and forced them … into accepting the declaration for a referendum on Crimea’s annexation into the Russian Federation.”
Admiral Igor Kasatonov of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was responsible for the military operation. In an interview with RIA on March 13, 2014 he spoke of his role as leading commander of the operation and that the Russian Special Forces were instrumental in the takeover of the Crimean Parliament and the entire peninsula.
Russian Soldiers in Eastern Ukraine
Vladimir Putin denied the presence of Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine on French television on July 4, 2014. “The Americans are lying. We were never involved in the destabilization of Ukraine and have no intention of doing so.”
The fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces intensified leading to the initial arrest of 10 Russian soldiers who were questioned by the Security Service of Ukraine. Nemtsov’s report presents extensive evidence on the presence of different Russian military formations in the Donbass and personal information on individual soldiers gathered from interviews with family members.
In February 2015, family members of the deceased soldiers who were seeking financial compensation from Russia’s Ministry of Defense met with Boris Nemtsov. Initially, families received a 3 million ruble sum for each deceased soldier. Upon receipt of the money, the family was forced to sign a document guaranteeing that they would remain silent on the fate of their husband or son.
A few months later, the Russian authorities changed their tactics. Anyone conscripted to serve in Ukraine signed a document stating that he no longer served in the Russian Armed Forces. Family members seeking compensation for the death of a soldier no longer have a legal basis for doing so.
The Russian Armed Forces in the Donbass received additional military support by organizing paid “volunteers” from all of the regions of the Russian Federation. Those sought were middle aged men with military experience and not young soldiers. The death of a young soldier could potentially create an upsurge in criticism of the Russian authorities. The pay scale for “volunteers” ranges from 60,000 to 350,000 rubles a month; depending upon rank and experience.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, stated that he personally was prepared to go fight in the Donbass on December 16, 2014. Kadyrov never went, but sent his own security forces. Chechen forces created the “Vostok” Battalion with the intent of presenting themselves as Donbass separatists; paid mercenaries doing Putin and Kadyrov’s dirty work.
From the very start, Russian authorities made every attempt to prevent information on the deaths of their soldiers from becoming public. However, on June 2, 2014 Maria Turchenkova, a photojournalist, published a report on the so-called “Grus 200” trucks carrying the bodies of 31 Russian soldiers killed during the battle for the Donetsk Airport. Aleksandr Boroday, the head of the so-called Donetsk Republic confirmed the Russian citizenship of the deceased. This was the first documentation of the transportation of the bodies of Russians killed in Ukraine back to Russia.
Lev Schlossberg, a deputy of the Pskov region, investigated the deaths of soldiers of the 76th Pskov Division. They were deceived into believing that they were going on maneuvers to Rostov. Once there, they were transported to Ukraine for battle, not even having an opportunity to inform their loved ones. The presence of the 76th Pskov Division in Ukraine was denied by the Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. The exact number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine is difficult to determine. Estimates are in the dozens to over one hundred.
Lev Schlossberg was assaulted and badly beaten for exposing the transport of dead soldiers on the cargo, “Grus 200” trucks. On January 27, 2015 Boris Nemtsov sent an official inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation regarding the deaths of soldiers in Ukraine. He was killed exactly one month later. No response was given to Nemtsov’s inquiry.
Nemtsov’s 65-page report, Putin, War, includes information directly implicating Russia in the downing of the Malaysia Flight 17, in the formation of the political leadership of the separatists, and the magnitude of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. The sheer costs of the war are staggering.
For Ukrainians the world over this information is “old news.” We have known this all along and have been regularly informing the public on these ongoing developments. Once average Russian citizens get a copy of this report, they will be consumed with shock and disbelief.
It is not surprising that one of the goals of Nemtsov’s assassination was to bury this report with him.
Rev. Myron Panchuk, M.A.