Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 4 said that deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had no political future but asserted he was legally still head of state. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - POOL / ALEXEY NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia using mobile crematoriums to burn dead soldiers?
03:00 - Source: CNN AP

Story highlights

Russian President Vladimir Putin makes all military deaths a state secret

Kremlin critics tie the move to the simmering conflict in Ukraine

Russia says it's trying to protect its national interests

CNN  — 

For years, the tally of Russian troops who died at war has been a state secret. Now, President Vladimir Putin says his government won’t reveal the number of military deaths during peacetime either.

A new presidential decree puts Russia’s military losses “in peacetime during special operations” on the country’s list of state secrets alongside “information disclosing losses in manpower in wartime,” Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported Thursday.

Critics of the Kremlin were quick to tie the move to the simmering conflict in Ukraine.

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

Russia has repeatedly denied it’s sending troops into the neighboring country amid reports that its soldiers are once again amassing along the border.

And on Thursday, a Kremlin spokesman dismissed any connection between Putin’s decree and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the move “reflected the general need to protect Russia’s national interests,” Russia’s state-run Sputnik News website reported. Asked whether Putin intended to authorize special military operations in Ukraine, Peskov said the Russian President “is not contemplating this possibility.”

The Kremlin admits that Russians fight alongside separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, but says that they do so as volunteers.

But “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine,” a report published Thursday by the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, says “overwhelming and indisputable” evidence shows Russia’s involvement in the fighting.

“Russian citizens and soldiers are fighting and dying in a war of their government’s own making,” the report says, citing satellite images and open source materials as proof.

Russia using mobile crematoriums to burn dead soldiers?

CNN’s Alla Eshchenko, Nick Paton Walsh, Jack Maddox and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.