With war underway in Ukraine, Russians don’t like what little they learn

Russian flags around a statue of Lenin. (Roy Gutman/MCT)
Russian flags around a statue of Lenin. (Roy Gutman/MCT) MCT

The secret funerals are back. So are motherly measures. Even soccer officials are sniping at each other. As the Ukrainian-Russian conflict enters its sixth month, there are signs from inside Russia that a nation’s nerves are beginning to fray.

Evidence of the extent of Russian military involvement in Ukraine has been dribbling out of conflict areas for months. This week, it reached a level at which Ukrainian and western officials finally referred to it as invasion. But recently, from press accounts and more, it apparently 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, then 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.

“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 are being returned with death certificates structured to make it appear they died elsewhere. In that same battle, another 300 were reported to have been injured.

A group of Russian mothers realized that instead of the official military story _ that their boys had been sent out 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 simply using their vacation days to join the fight.

On Friday, Russia officially labeled a St. Petersburg soldiers’ mothers group as “foreign agents,” a highly insulting label requiring them to note this status in fund raising 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 learned that way that their sons have 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 Ukrainian 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.”

But perhaps the most public and semi-official example of the state of the mood inside Russia over the Ukrainian crisis came during a meeting of Russian soccer officials.

The crisis began in March, with the controversial Russian annexation of Crimea. Russia claimed it annexed the Black Sea peninsula to protect ethnic Russians and Russian interests, and only after a vote indicated overwhelming local support for joining the Russian Federation. But officials in Ukraine, and the west, have said the process went against international law, and noted that the vote results are highly suspect.

Among the international bodies that have not recognized Crimea as Russian is the Union of European Football Associations, and the Federation of International Football Associations, or the European and world governing bodies of soccer. The soccer bodies insist that unless Ukraine agrees to allow Crimean teams to play in Russia, their games in Russia will not be officially recognized.

The fallout of that dispute could be serious. Inside Russia, there is pressure from Putin’s government to fully integrate Crimea into Russian daily life, and that includes soccer. To Putin, Crimea has a symbolic importance to Russia.

But so does the 2018 World Cup that was awarded to Russia, and which European nations are now insisting be moved. In addition, Russian professional teams qualify for the prestigious and lucrative UEFA Champions League, which could also be jeopardized.

On July 31 a meeting of the executive committee of Russian soccer officials, the nerves over both trying to please the Russian president yet abide by the rules of the game, and retain both the World Cup and Champions League, was obvious. A sample of that discussion as reported by the Russian investigation magazine Novaya Gazeta:

Yevgeny Giner, the president and co-owner of CSKA Moscow, whose team is in the Champions League this year: “Say yes? Who will make up the 10 million euro I lose?”

Vladimir Yakunin, the president of Russian Railways: “Our country is under sanctions. We have one president, who stands on the parapet… What would you do? Crawl on your belly? Do you understand? You either leave this country, or behave accordingly, as citizens of this country.”

Giner: “Do you understand… I have to keep the club, and tomorrow we will be removed from the World Cup in 2018. Another sanction, and why?”

Nikolai Tolstoy, president of Russian soccer: “The risks are obvious. If they need to find a reason to apply sanctions against the Russian Federation, including football, they will be found.”

Sergey Galitsky, owner of the Magnet store chain and the FC Krasnodar soccer team: “Football must be separate from politics ... And we can lose ... besides the fact that we can lose the European Cups, foreigners will start to leave, the house of cards will fall. If the decision is taken at the top, we will take it, because we are citizens of this country.”