- 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
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.