Russia Reports Troop Deaths In Ukraine, But Calls Them 'Volunteers' : Parallels Ukraine and the West insist that the Russian army has been fighting in eastern Ukraine, a charge Russia denies. But reports from Russia now acknowledge that Russian soldiers are part of the battle.
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Russia Reports Troop Deaths In Ukraine, But Calls Them 'Volunteers'

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Russia Reports Troop Deaths In Ukraine, But Calls Them 'Volunteers'

Russia Reports Troop Deaths In Ukraine, But Calls Them 'Volunteers'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia is not trying quite so hard to deny its troops are in Ukraine. Russian media reports now acknowledge that the country's soldiers are part of the battle - something the government has formally denied. The Russian troops are acknowledged only as volunteers on leave from their official duties. Critics of course say the Russian military's ordering soldiers into the fight and covering up the deaths of those who are killed in an unacknowledged war on foreign soil. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The Russian TV channel MTV carried a report on the funerals of two Russian paratroopers who were killed while fighting in Ukraine. The men were buried with full military honors, including the Russian national anthem and a gun salute fired by fellow paratroopers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN PARATROOPER FUNERAL)

FLINTOFF: The MTV report quotes the leader of a prominent veterans group as saying the men were heroes who died for the freedom of Russian-speaking people in Eastern Ukraine. The report also said the two men took leave from their military duties in Russia without telling their superiors that they planned to fight alongside the separatists in Ukraine's Eastern provinces. That's in keeping with the recent statement from the current leader of the self-declared Donetsk's People's Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEKSANDR ZAKHARCHENKO: (Through translator) We have never hidden that there are many Russians among us. There's no secret that among the volunteers from Russia there are many military men.

FLINTOFF: Zakharchenko said there have been 3,000 to 4,000 Russians fighting with the separatists, and he acknowledged that some of them have been killed. Russian leaders from President Putin and on down consistently deny that Russia has any role at all in the fighting. But Russia's military has been challenged to explain an upsurge in dead and missing soldiers from its elite unit.

Another two members of a parachute division were buried in the western Russian city of Pskov last month. The official explanation was that they had been killed in a training exercise in southern Russia, but references on social media suggested they had actually been in eastern Ukraine. An opposition lawmaker from the city, Lev Shlosberg, was severely beaten by unknown assailants after he tried to draw attention to rumors that units from Pskov were taking some substantial casualties in the fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEV SCHLOSBERG: (Through translator) This isn't reported. They deny it. The fact that the loss is denied and the scale of the casualties and they ended up denying the fact of the burials.

FLINTOFF: After Shlosberg and some independent news media tried to find out more about the deaths, the wreaths and nameplates were removed from the two graves. Speaking to NPR by cell phone from his hospital bed, Shlosberg said Pskov is a military city and that the Defense Ministry should tell the truth about where its soldiers are fighting.

SCHLOSBERG: (Through translator) There's a political decision to keep the information about the war from being published so people aren't getting information - including the families. They make everyone keep silent and tell lies.

FLINTOFF: Valentina Melnikova is the head of the Committee of Soldier's Mothers, an organization representing the troop's families. In an interview with the independent TV channel Rain, she says families should be told the truth about how their soldiers died and why, and they shouldn't be forced to keep quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALENTINA MELNIKOVA: (Through translator) If relatives are threatened, they should demand an investigation because no one should threaten relatives of those who died or were taken prisoner or wounded. No one should call this a secret.

FLINTOFF: Ukrainian officials claim that up to 2,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine. If even a fraction of that is true, the Russian military has a lot to explain to the families of the dead. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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