According to Nato intelligence, there are at least 1,000 Russian soldiers fighting against the Ukraine.
According to Putin, there are none.
Much as I’m always prepared to give career KGB officers the benefit of the doubt, the numbers don’t quite add up.
Specifically the number of young soldiers, hundreds of them, mostly airborne, who are being buried in army-issue zinc coffins all over Russia.
Two such soldiers, Leonid Kichatkin (30.09.1984 – 19.08.2014) and Alexander Osipov (15.12.1993 – 20.08.2014) were buried on 25 August in a village cemetery near Pskov.
Both soldiers served in the crack 76th Airborne Division, both died, a day apart. Of course, servicemen die for all sorts of reasons: training accidents, firearms accidentally discharged, illness, alcoholism, you name it.
Yet such funerals aren’t usually accompanied by the pomp of these two burials, and nor are commanding officers at hand to lay wreaths on the graves, as they were there.
By pure coincidence a day before Leonid died, Putin awarded to 76th Airborne the Order of Suvorov for “the successful carrying out of combat orders, and the personnel’s courage and heroism shown therein.”
Out of idle interest, what combat orders? According to Putin the Russian army isn’t in action at the moment.
However, it’s hard not to connect the funerals with the award, even at the risk of accusing both Putin and his defence minister Shoigu of lying. This task became harder still when two days after the funerals the birth and death dates were expunged from the tombs, and the wreaths removed.
The families of the deceased weren’t told how their loved ones died, or where, or what for. Two journalists who tried to obtain that information had their car trashed, after which two beefy chaps in track suits cordially advised them to get out of the village “on the first train”.
“If you don’t stop digging,” the pundits were told, “there are many swamps here in Pskov, and you’ll never be found.” I don’t know if the reporters followed this friendly advice, but such threats are usually taken seriously under Putin.
Meanwhile our own journalists, few of whom are similarly threatened, display their enviable command of the English language by alternately referring to the force engaged in combat with the Ukraine as ‘separatists’, ‘rebels’, ‘volunteers’, ‘militants’, ‘paramilitaries’, ‘mercenaries’ and so forth.
How much simpler it would be if we were to straighten out this linguistic chaos and call them by their real name:
Russian troops. Fighting a war against the Ukraine. And threatening Europe.
President Poroshenko finally abandoned euphemisms earlier today, when he cancelled a state visit to Turkey in order to deal with what he called Russian invasion.
This is not to say that all the troops fighting against the Ukraine do so under Russian flags or with Russian insignia, though the evidence that some are is rapidly accumulating.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that they are all trained, armed, commanded and helped with logistics by Russian officers. It’s equally demonstrable that some of them are soldiers in the Russian armed forces.
But the ranks of the invasion army have been filled with different groups. At first, around April, the vanguard was formed out of assorted criminal bands, most of them small, which had axes to grind not so much with the Ukrainian government as with the Ukrainian oligarchs.
The two groups, incidentally, aren’t always distinguishable, as they aren’t in Russia. ‘Chocolate king’, now President, Poroshenko, for example, has a foot in both groups. However, the universally mentioned bogeyman is Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukraine’s richest man with much political clout.
Yet when it came to storming government buildings in the Donetsk area, most fighting was done, and all was led, by Russian intelligence officers, either KGB/FSB or GRU.
They were assisted by hastily recruited veterans of recent Russian wars, especially those against Georgia and Chechnya. These people were mostly drawn in by Russian army recruitment committees, which keep detailed records on all recently discharged servicemen.
Since most of them found it hard to adapt to life in mufti, they jumped at the chance to do what they do best. It was these people who operated the serious gear that befuddled the previous ragtag army. It was they who most certainly fired the SAM immortalised in the history of Malaysia.
Yet towards the end of May the Ukrainian army finally began to make significant headway. The situation is eerily similar to the Vietnam war, where at first most of the fighting on the North side was done by NFL guerrillas. However, after they were routed in the 1968 Tet Offensive, the regular army of North Vietnam took over.
Exactly the same is happening in the Ukraine. More and more the motley crew of the previous months is being replaced – or at least greatly augmented – by regular Russian units (such as parts of 76th Airborne).
On 16 August the so-called Premier of the so-called Donetsk Republic Alexander Zakharchenko openly admitted that the ‘separatists’ had received much sophisticated kit from Russia and also 1,200 ‘volunteers’. Now we know that among them were the Pskov airborne troops of the 76th Division.
On 19 August a whole company of 76th Airborne was wiped out at Luhansk, with much unequivocal documentation and several BMDs (Boyevaya Mashina Desanta – combat airborne machine) captured by the Ukrainian army.
(The two lads, Kichatkin and Osipov, whose funerals I mentioned earlier, coincidentally died on 19 and 20 August.)
These soldiers of the Russian army are treated as volunteers, which, in a weird sort of way, some of them are. The way is weird because these regulars are offered a chance to have their current contracts, paying pittance, replaced with others, paying a bit more. Most agree to volunteer, and those who don’t are volunteered by the their COs.
They then go into battle, led by their own officers, driving their own BMDs and carrying their own Russian army cards, which then embarrassingly fall into enemy hands.
The entire fighting force, however it was recruited, can be legitimately called ‘Russian army’. After all, it is trained, armed, supported and unleashed by the Russian government in pursuit of Russia’s strategic objectives.
All else is window dressing or – to give it an appropriate touch of local lore – Potemkin villages.