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MOSCOW -- Allies of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov have published an investigative report that Nemtsov was working on when he was shot dead in February.
Nemtsov had hoped to expose what he described as President Vladimir Putin's "war" in Ukraine, but in the end his opposition colleagues and friends would complete the report. These are nine of its central allegations:
The report alleges that Russia's annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine were planned in detail in advance. It says that Putin was looking for a way to reassert his authority in his third presidential term after large opposition protests in 2011-12. It points to opinion polls cited in the report that indicate Putin's popularity rating was at 45 percent in February 2014 and in recent months has been consistently over 70 percent.
Citing the testimony of several paratroopers from the Russian cities of Kostroma and Ivanovo who were captured by Kyiv's forces in eastern Ukraine and questioned by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), the report says that Russian troops have been active in eastern Ukraine. The report also cites the testimony of soldiers from a tank unit who were captured in August 2014 near Ilovaysk, the site of major battles in the conflict.
The report says that at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed fighting in eastern Ukraine. It says that at least 150 were killed near Ilovaysk in August 2014, in an offensive by Ukrainian forces, and that at least 70 -- including 17 paratroopers from Ivanovo -- were killed in January and February, when fighting intensified after a lull late last year. It says relatives of soldiers in the latter group approached Nemtsov for help because they could not get compensation from the government.
The report says that various types of Russian military hardware have been used by separatists who hold parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions even though they are Russian-made and not available for export -- and therefore not available to Ukraine. It says this debunks the claim that separatists are using Ukrainian military equipment. As an example, the report points to a Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile system photographed in Luhansk in February.
The report alleges that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by the separatists with a Buk missile system. Here and elsewhere, the authors say they have primarily "systematized" openly available information. Among other things, the report points to social-media statements picked up by Russian state news outlets in which rebels initially confirmed they had shot down a plane -- until the statements were deleted. It also cites investigations by Western media and a group of investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Netherlands, and Ukraine, which said MH17 -- whose downing killed all 298 people on board -- was most likely shot down by a Buk.
Volunteers or Mercenaries
The report says that the legions of men dubbed "volunteers" by Moscow have in fact been hired "mercenaries." Speaking at the presentation, activist Ilya Yashin said that regional military enlistment offices and veteran organizations with official backing trained, armed, and paid mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and beef up the ranks of the separatists. Yashin said monthly wages have averaged 60,000 rubles ($1,180), while some received up to 90,000 rubles.
The report claims that fighters from Russia's Chechnya region, which is led by Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, have played a prominent role. It says they first appeared in May 2014, and that they filled the ranks of the rebel Vostok Battalion and took part in the long, deadly battles over the Donetsk airport. They were also the first to suffer serious losses: a Kamaz truck carrying Chechen fighters was hit, killing several and wounding several. The report says a second wave of Chechens arrived in August, when the tide of the conflict turned in favor of the rebels following government advances.
The report asserts that the unrecognized separatist entities, the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, are under direct control of the Kremlin administration. It names Vladislav Surkov, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, as a key figure. The report lists prominent former and current separatist figures who are Russian citizens, and notes that several early separatist leaders hailed from Moscow and were linked to a Russian businessman. It quotes a former separatist leader as saying Surkov provided "serious support" and was "our man in the Kremlin."
The report says that in the first 10 months of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia spent 53 billion rubles ($1 billion) hiring mercenaries, supporting the separatists, and on the upkeep of military hardware used by the separatists. It says approximately 80 billion rubles has been spent from the federal budget on the massive inflow of refugees from eastern Ukraine into Russia -- which it terms a "humanitarian catastrophe." The report also estimates that Russians lost 2 trillion rubles in salaries and 750 billion rubles in savings due to the annexation of Crimea, which triggered sanctions, countersanctions, and inflation.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.