MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Ukraine conflict has evoked many memories of the Cold War, including a footloose attitude to the truth. But even as Russia’s denials of involvement stretch credibility to breaking point, for some they remain a convenient fiction.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is chief among them; denying a Russian role will keep his domestic audience in ignorance of a war they don’t want - especially useful if the battle goes badly.
But there are also some European powers, including Germany and France, who despite being on the opposite side of the crisis share Putin’s desire not to paint it as an out-and-out war between Russia and Ukraine.
For them, stating unequivocally that Russia has attacked Ukraine would force them to impose more costly sanctions, and could block the path to a truce with Russia they hope will resolve the crisis.
Some say the evidence of Russian involvement has built to a point where it now strains credibility to assert that Russia’s military is not helping the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
That is especially so after the past 72 hours when, according to Kiev, Russia has pushed in troops and hardware to avoid a collapse of its pro-Moscow separatist allies.
“The mask is coming off,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “In these acts, these recent acts, we see Russia’s actions for what they are: a deliberate effort to support, and now fight alongside, illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”
NATO has released satellite imagery it said showed Russian combat forces inside Ukrainian territory. A group of captured servicemen from Russia were recorded on video describing how they were ordered into Ukraine, though officials in Moscow said they crossed the border by mistake.
A Reuters reporter saw armored vehicles and uniformed men, all with identifying markings removed or covered up, massing on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine. They were a short drive from the Ukrainian village where residents reported seeing identical troops manning checkpoints.
In the northwest Russian city of Pskov, reporters were chased away from a cemetery where, according to accounts on social media, two Russian paratroopers killed in Ukraine were secretly buried.
Two members of a Russian presidential human rights council said they had evidence that more than 100 Russian servicemen were killed in a single battle in Ukraine this month.
Russia continues to deny that its troops or military equipment have attacked Ukraine. The defense ministry dismissed the assertions as a “canard” invented by foreigners.
The Kremlin knows that an all-out war would threaten Putin’s popularity after an Aug. 26 opinion poll by Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation showed only 5 percent of respondents favored sending in Russian troops to eastern Ukraine.
The same poll showed the majority of Russians receive their information on the conflict from television — which is almost entirely state-controlled and makes no mention of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine — and that 73 percent believe the information they get from the media is reliable.
Putin only acknowledged that Russian troops had occupied Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula earlier this year after it became clear Kiev would not fight back against Moscow’s annexation.
“Nobody judges the winners,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who is often critical of Putin.
Eastern Ukraine, in contrast, will be a tough fight, with the outcome uncertain.
If the Kremlin were to let the broader Russian public know its soldiers were fighting in Ukraine, that could unearth traumatic memories of past conflicts.
Memories are still raw of the long, drawn-out fight against separatists in the Russian region of Chechnya, and before that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the telegrams telling families that their sons had died in those campaigns.
Those conflicts also spawned an organized network of campaign groups called soldiers’ mothers committees which — even as the rest of civil society has been squeezed by the Kremlin — still enjoy moral authority and political influence.
That network has already swung into action, collating information from parents who said their soldier sons had gone missing, possibly in Ukraine.
“We are a small movement but a morally strong one,” Ella Polyakova, who heads the St. Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, told Reuters. She also sits on the presidential human rights council.
Putin can skirt the domestic political risks of waging a war by denying that it is happening for as long as he can.
“If it’s an all-out war against Ukraine, people’s minds would turn around much more quickly,” said Oreshkin. “That would be dangerous for Putin.”
Acknowledging that Russia is involved would also undermine the Kremlin’s efforts to make Kiev recognize the separatists as a legitimate domestic phenomenon that must be accommodated in an eventual political settlement.
While the United States, the leadership of the NATO military alliance, and more hawkish European countries such as Britain and Poland say unequivocally that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, some European leaders have been more cautious.
French President Francois Hollande said that for Russian troops to have entered Ukrainian territory would be “intolerable and unacceptable”, but added the qualification that this had not yet been proven to be true.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to “reports of an increased presence of Russian soldiers” in Ukraine, without saying that they were on the ground there.
According to one senior European diplomat, Berlin believes that, at some point in the future, a deal can be brokered with Russia and so does not want to take steps that would unnecessarily antagonize it.
In the case of France, accusing Moscow of invading Ukraine could jeopardize a deal to sell a Mistral warship to the Russian navy, which in turn could have an effect on future defense contracts with other customers, according to Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris.
“Of the major countries, I assume France would be the last one to state the obvious,” said Heisbourg.
“They have a stake in denying this for as long as they can and only changing their mind when the evidence is completely unambiguous. Don’t expect the French to signal the beginning of the stampede.”
If Russia openly waged war on Ukraine, it would be harder for European states such as France and Germany to maintain their nuanced line on Russia, and make tougher European Union sanctions inevitable.
This factor, along with the domestic risks, gives Putin an additional reason to maintain his line that Russian troops are not fighting in Ukraine.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jason Bush and Thomas Grove in Moscow, John Irish in Paris, Stephen Brown in Berlin and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Jason Bush and Will Waterman