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Is Vladimir Putin Covering Up the Deaths of Russian Soldiers in Ukraine?

With Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russian soldiers are also all but certainly dying there. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be mounting a campaign to find out that his constituents don't find out about that unpleasant and politically explosive fact.

Over the past week, there have been reports across Russian media of a sudden and unexplained surge in the number of killed or wounded Russian military servicemen. TV Dozhd is maintaining an online list of Russian soldiers killed, wounded, or detained in Ukraine, and on Friday, TV Dozhd reported that the bodies of two Russian infantrymen had recently been returned to their home in Nizhniy Novgorod, a city east of Moscow, after they had been killed by a mine in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which has been the scene of intense fighting.

Moreover, TV Dozhd reported that an investigation carried out by the activist group Soldiers' Mothers found that 200 Russian soldiers had purportedly been forced to sign non-disclosure forms and contracts as conscripts to deploy in Ukraine.

Soldiers' Mothers has been taking the lead in trying to find answers about Russian casualties in Ukraine, but on Friday, the group's St. Petersburg chapter was put under administrative control by the Ministry of Justice and classified as a "foreign agent" by the government. Soldiers' Mothers rose to prominence for their activism on behalf of Russian soldiers fighting in Chechnya during the 1990s, when large casualties dramatically undermined popular support for the government of Boris Yeltsin.  

On Tuesday, Russia's presidential human rights council said about 100 wounded servicemen had been airlifted to a military hospital in St Petersburg for treatment and that nine soldiers were killed at a training range in Rostov region. However, little further explanation was provided.

Yet, despite the fog surrounding the cause of the soldiers' deaths and injuries, reports have begun to surface of coffins returning from Ukraine. Earlier this week, two freshly dug graves were discovered near the northwestern Russian town of Pskov, home to a well-known paratrooper division. The graves were spotted by Pskovskaya Guberniya, a local newspaper. The names of the dead have been removed from the graves and relatives of the officers have reportedly been warned not to talk to the media. The paper's journalists who discovered the graves say they were attacked at the cemetery by what they described as "thugs".

In another possible indication of the Pskov paratroopers' possible involvement in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin gave the Order of Suvorov to the Pskov-based 76th airborne division on August 18, for "bravery and heroism" while performing unspecified tasks. According to TV Dozhd's list, four members of the unit have been killed in fighting in Ukraine.

Though Moscow steadfastly denies its soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, Russian troops were captured in eastern Ukraine last weekend, claiming they inadvertently strayed into Ukrainian territory. The members of the Russian 98th Airborne Division are now being held in Kiev, and when news broke of their capture, their mothers went on camera to plead with Putin to ensure their sons' safe return.

Putin has seen his approval ratings sky-rocket amid the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but mounting casualties are likely to undercut the political benefits Putin has accrued from his stand-off with the West. "Short, bloodless, victorious wars are popular everywhere," Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. "It's only afterwards, when the casualties begin to mount, that people start to ask, ‘Was that really worth it?'"

Russia's unwillingness to honestly report on the deaths of its soldiers harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, where the fate of servicemen returning from Afghanistan was covered up. An estimated 13,000 Soviet troops were killed in the Afghanistan campaign, but the full scope of the casualties did not become clear until after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. This policy continued during the Russian Federation and its two wars in Chechnya, where the Russian military also suffered heavy losses, the full-scope of which are still not fully known.

With more and more coffins returning from Ukraine as the conflict intensifies, it should be no surprise that the Kremlin is pushing back against the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, whose activities are beginning to counter the government's narrative of events. But with a mountain of evidence becoming available to the Russian public, the Kremlin won't be able to keep the truth buried for much longer.

--Elias Groll contributed to this article.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

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How Did the Media Become Convinced Obama Would Strike Militants in Syria?

A funny thing happened on the way to President Barack Obama's Thursday news conference: The Washington press corps came in convinced that the commander in chief was about to launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria. But Obama furiously pumped the brakes: "We don't have a strategy yet," he said. "I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are."

It's not often that the president engages in media criticism, but he has a point. The runup was filled with breathless speculation about how the United States will counter the Sunni militant group, treating the question not as one of if Obama would give the "go" order to strike the Islamic State in Syria but when. The president, it seems, hasn't quite caught up with the foreign-policy commentariat.

Didn't you hear, Obama? The Washington establishment decided it was time for war days ago.

The week began with news that the Pentagon was preparing to send surveillance aircraft over Syrian airspace, laying the groundwork for a possible air campaign against militants there. U.S. forces are already striking Islamic State targets in Iraq. Military officials say they need better intelligence on the situation inside Syria before expanding the air campaign. The surveillance flight news was treated in some quarters as verification of impending military action

The same day, the Washington Post declared that America should deploy ground troops in Iraq. "The extremists treat Iraq and Syria as one area of operations, and the United States must do the same," the paper argued.

Two days later, the Daily Beast reported that Obama wanted a war plan on his desk by the end of the week. The purpose of that effort, one official told the outlet, was "to convince one man, Barack Obama," to hit the Islamic State in Syria. The same day, Bloomberg reported that "Obama will probably order at least limited strikes against Islamic State fighters."

Instead of ordering immediate strikes on Islamic State militants, Obama has adopted a more cautious approach, dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to secure the support of regional governments and allies against the militant group. Obama has instructed his top military brass to present him with options for military operations.

Obama's refusal to pursue a more aggressive course of action has led to a palpable sense of frustration with the White House. In a front page article for the Post Friday, reporter Karen DeYoung raked Obama over the coals. In explaining why Obama has not yet, in her words "implemented a comprehensive U.S. response to the Islamist insurgency that is rapidly spreading across the Middle East," DeYoung quoted a series of dismayed regional officials. "When a superpower, the superpower, is reluctant in developing policy, it's not only about leadership, it's about having a coherent approach to crises," one reportedly said.

In the aftermath of American journalist James Foley's beheading, the debate over what to do about the Islamic State's brutality and territorial gains took on something of a desperate tone. But no one advocating the group's defeat has presented a credible strategy that doesn't include a significant U.S. ground troops. As his answer about his lack of strategy reveals, Obama is aware of this. Even if he believes the group is dangerous enough to warrant deploying ground troops, doing so is all but politically impossible.

Here, Obama has been singularly ill-served by his administration's rhetoric. A week earlier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly declared that defeating the Islamic State required countering it on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. "To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no," Dempsey said. "That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border."

Kerry has also contributed to boxing in Obama:

 

Statements like these have bolstered criticism toward the White House among the press, whose outrage has only been further fueled by the brutal death of one of their own. But Obama has resolutely rejected these calls to take more aggressive action across the Syrian border, even as his more hawkish advisors are feeding the media statements about how airstrikes are imminent.

That effort by his advisors -- in addition to the comments from the anonymous regional officials quoted by the Post -- amount to something of a whisper campaign to create a sense of inevitability around striking the Islamic State in Syria.

But Obama, as his predecessor famously called himself when he was president, remains "the decider.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images