The evidence is mounting that an unannounced Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine is underway. After Moscow landed troops in Crimea earlier this year and later annexed the peninsula, an unhappy waiting game has played out around Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatist militia have resisted an “anti-terrorist operation” launched by the national government in Kyiv. At the wrong ends of bullets and bombs, people have been dying in Eastern Ukraine for months already. There are new signs, however, that Russian soldiers are now joining in the bloodshed.
Last week, the Ukrainian military claimed to have captured two Russian armored personnel carriers (APCs), and inside them documents proving that the vehicles were from Russia, based in Pskov. Journalists and bloggers spent the next few days tracking down the social media accounts of the soldiers identified in the recovered paperwork, discovering several Vkontakte accounts where updates suddenly ceased just before the APCs were destroyed in Luhansk.
This week, Russian journalists discovered a series of fresh graves in Pskov, belonging to soldiers who died under mysterious circumstances. On August 26, when more reporters tried to visit the cemetery where they were buried, anonymous men attacked them and told them never to return. A team did return to the cemetery later the same night, hoping to gather more evidence about the recently departed, but the men were waiting for them again. The reporters retreated a second time, as their assailants bashed their car and flattened their tires.
На нас напали на кладбище, где вероятно хоронили десантников. Пробили колеса и пытались разбить стеклоЕли ноги унесли pic.twitter.com/vMErc8l0H6
— Владимир Роменский (@Romenskiy) August 26, 2014
We were attacked at the cemetery, where they’ve probably buried the soldiers. They punctured the tires and tried to break the windshield. We narrowly escaped.
Despite being chased off by nameless goons, Vladimir Romensky, one of the journalists, still managed to snap a few photos of one of the new graves:
Еще одна могила вероятного десантника, который есть в списках обнаружена на псковском кладбище в районе Кресты. pic.twitter.com/jSpC1pOB9Y
— Владимир Роменский (@Romenskiy) August 26, 2014
Here's another grave that likely belongs to one of the marines, whose name is in the [Ukrainian] lists, found in the Pskov cemetery in Kresty district.
As independent journalists have risked their personal safety to find out more about the buried soldiers in Pskov, some Russians online have wondered why the story isn’t getting coverage from the country’s most active investigative journalists, namely LifeNews, whose reporters seem to arrive at crime scenes before the police.
Если бы @AramAshotich сейчас взял и отправил бы людей в Псков, сделал бы материал, то он был бы на вершине журналистики реально. Но нет же
— Maria Baronova (@ponny1) August 26, 2014
If Aram Gabrelyanov [the owner of LifeNews] up and sent his people to Pskov and produced a report, he’d shoot to the top of all Russian journalism. But, nope, nothing.
Not everyone on the Web, however, is clamoring for more grave photos. Twitter user Natalia Grafskaya, for instance, shared her anger with TV Rain for airing pictures from the cemetery.
@tvrain Телеканалу “Дождь”дОлжно быть стыдно пиарить себя на кладбище-где у людей-горе. Телеканал “Дождь”-это ИУДА для современной России.
— Графская Наталья (@natalyaGraf) August 26, 2014
The television station RAIN should be ashamed of promoting itself at a cemetery, where people are mourning. TV Rain is the Judas of modern Russia.
In a similar vein, the deputy head of Russia's federal communications agency asked ominously on Twitter if Slon.ru, one of the first major news websites to publish images of the graves, had first obtained permission from the soldiers’ relatives. (Slon never responded, on Twitter at any rate.)
On August 26, a day after photographs of the graves flooded the RuNet, the President’s Council for Human Rights—a semi-independent consultative body within the Kremlin—addressed a public letter to federal investigators, asking police to get to the bottom of the situation in Pskov. If these soldiers all died in some related incident, officials should open a criminal case, Council members Ella Polyakova and Sergei Krivenko reasoned.
Incidentally, Polyakova, the head of a “soldiers’ mothers” organization in St. Petersburg, wasn’t finished making headlines. Hours after asking the Investigative Committee to look into the graves in Pskov, Polyakova told TV Rain, Russia’s only independent television station, that a hospital in St. Petersburg had just admitted nearly 100 wounded Russian soldiers. (The cause of the injuries remains unknown at the time of this article’s publication.)
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government claims to have captured ten Russian soldiers 12 miles deep in Ukrainian territory on August 24, posting YouTube videos of the interrogations of four men. In the videos, the captured servicemen, members of the 96th airborne division based in Kostroma, say they were conducting official training exercises, when Ukrainian forces intervened and apprehended them. “This is all just politics and money,” one soldier told his interrogator, explaining obsequiously that an independent Republic of Donetsk can never exist. Writing on Facebook, Ukraine’s defense minister appealed to the families of Russian soldiers now on active duty, imploring them to find out where their loved ones are, before they’re sent to fight in Ukraine.
Back in Kostroma, military officials met privately on August 26 with the family members of soldiers in the 96th airborne division. According to reports online, the soldiers’ relatives unanimously refused to talk to reporters after the meeting, despite earlier promises to answer questions.
The Kremlin, for its part, denies that Russian troops have been deployed inside Ukraine, though Putin himself admits that patrols sometimes cross into Ukraine by accident.