Vladimir Putin declares all military deaths state secrets

Decision raises concerns for those who report deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has declared that all military deaths will be classified as state secrets not just in times of war but also in peace – a move that activists worry might further discourage the reporting of Russian soldiers' deaths in Ukraine.

The Russian president has amended a decree to extend the list of state secrets to include information on casualties during special operations when war has not been declared, among other changes.

Previously, the list had only forbidden “revealing personnel losses in wartime”. He has repeatedly denied any involvement of Russian troops in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine.

No official explanation has been given for the change. Revealing state secrets is punishable by up to seven years in prison.


Common practice

Rights advocate Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Union of the Committees of Soldier's Mothers of the Russian Federation, said the decree simply legalised the common practice of withholding information on all military losses, which had been done since Soviet times.

“I don’t know what [the new decree] is connected with, but the Bolsheviks and Russian authorities never revealed any casualty numbers, except after South Ossetia,” she said, referring to the 2008 conflict during which Russian troops established control of the Georgian breakaway region.

"It was always considered a state secret. Now Putin has just made this official."

Sergei Krivenko, a member of the presidential human rights council, said the decree "raises many questions" and could serve to intimidate activists, journalists or relatives who report the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

“If we lived in a state governed by the rule of law, this decree would only affect officials. Those who have this information don’t have the right to publish it, that’s what this decree is about,” he said. “But in the situation we’re in now . . . almost any citizen can be punished for revealing information, so long as the authorities decide that this information hurts the country’s interests.”

Earlier this month, one of two Russian men who were captured by Ukrainian forces during a clash with pro-Russian rebels said on camera that he was a member of the Russian special forces.

Coverage of Russian soldiers’ presence in Ukraine is virtually taboo on state-controlled television, which portrays Russians fighting there as volunteers.

At least 276 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, according to a list of names compiled by Open Russia, an organisation started by Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


Also this month, colleagues of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in February, presented a report with evidence of Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.

Relatives of dead servicemen and returned soldiers have been reluctant to speak out about the conflict.

Activist Ilya Yashin told the Guardian that while working on the Nemtsov report he had met relatives of 17 soldiers from Ivanovo who were killed in Ukraine, but they had signed a pledge of secrecy and were afraid to go on record.

This week, US congressman Mac Thornberry said the Russian armed forces were "trying to hide their casualties" by deploying mobile crematoriums to eastern Ukraine. Putin's spokesman called the statement untrustworthy, and the US state department reportedly declined to confirm the report.

Guardian service