- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2015

The State Department on Thursday slammed the Russian government’s decision to stop making public its peacetime military casualties, calling the decree a clear attempt by Moscow to hide the deaths of Russian soldiers conducting clandestine operations inside eastern Ukraine.

“We see this as a misplaced effort to cover up what everyone knows, and that is that Russian active-duty military personnel are fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine and that the Russian government is denying it,” said department spokesman Jeff Rathke.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Thursday that was later posted on the government’s official website declaring that any information pertaining to the loss of Russian troops in “special operations” during peacetime is now considered a state secret.

The Obama administration and NATO have for months asserted that thousands of Russian troops aided in the 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and now are fighting alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. News of Mr. Putin’s decree this week coincides with mounting accusations from U.S. lawmakers, who accuse Moscow of going to tremendous lengths to conceal the Russian military’s involvement in the conflict.

Two members of the House Armed Services Committee — Republican Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas and Democrat Seth Moulten of Massachusetts — told Bloomberg View this week that the Russian troops are trying to hide their casualties in the conflict by carting “mobile crematoriums” on missions into eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Moulten first tweeted about the crematoriums in March. Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that he doubted the “sanity” of anyone making the charges, but the U.S. lawmakers said this week that the information was coming from multiple sources.

Ukrainian officials have made claims about the crematoriums for months. Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, chairman of the nation’s security service, was widely quoted in January as claiming seven crematoriums mounted on the chassis of Kamaz utility trucks had crossed into militant-held areas on order from Moscow.

Mr. Nalyvaichenko said the crematoriums burn “8 to 10 bodies per day,” but the actual number of Russian soldiers killed during fighting in eastern Ukraine remains a subject of speculation among U.S. officials.

Mr. Rathke told reporters Thursday that “Russian troops often remove the insignia from their uniforms. They leave behind passports and other forms of identification. They paint their vehicles to remove Russian flags and other identifying emblems.

“All of this is to hide the direct involvement in eastern Ukraine of Russia,” he said.

A leading human rights group also attacked Mr. Putin’s order.

“Not only is this decree a blatant attack on freedom of expression,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement, but “it also has sinister undertones that will intensify speculation President Putin has something to hide — specifically losses incurred by Russia’s military in Ukraine.”

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