With evidence of Russian military activity in Ukraine piling up, how long can Moscow deny its involvement in the ongoing conflict?
The frantic appeal to the Russian President came on Wednesday from a cramped and cluttered office in the city of Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where the relatives of Russian prisoners of war had gathered to wait for news of their sons and husbands. Olga Pochtoeva, the mother of one of the Russian soldiers recently captured in Ukraine, stood before the camera, her eyes red from crying, and addressed Vladimir Putin directly. “I beg you in the name of Christ,” she said. “Give me back my child. Give him back alive.”
It was another blow to Putin’s position on the war in eastern Ukraine. The previous night, after a round of talks aimed at ending a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since April, Putin had again insisted that Russia was not a party to the conflict and had sent no soldiers to fight it. “This is not our business,” he told reporters after the talks in the capital of Belarus, having just finished his first meeting since June with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “It is a domestic matter of Ukraine itself,” he said.
But Putin’s persistent denials of Russian involvement have started to crack, eroded by a growing body of proof that Russian soldiers are in fact fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. The evidence suggests a new level of Russian involvement in the war, not merely funneling weapons and volunteers across the border to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, but sending regular Russian ground forces on missions into Ukrainian territory. The inevitable result of that escalation has been a growing Russian casualty count, and the funerals and panicked relatives of Russian soldiers have been hard to sweep under the rug. Soon they are likely to force Putin either to come clean and admit his country’s intervention in Ukraine, or to face the growing public resentment over his denials.
The first crack in Russia’s claim of non-involvement came on Monday morning, when the Ukrainian security services released images of nine Russian paratroopers who had been captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. In the video statement of Pochtoeva’s son, Yegor Pochtoev, he appeals to his parents directly. “Mom, dad, everything is fine. I have enough to eat and drink,” he says. “But the Russian Ministry of Defense is denying that we are their servicemen, that we have come from Russia.” He asks his parents to help prove that they are Russian soldiers.