Image: Arina Istomina / Mediazona
The Constitution of the Russian Federation gives the president a very wide range of powers, among them the power to issue ukazy, executive orders with the status of a by-law. Unlike laws, these can be classified, and can take effect immediately. These acts concern two topics of particular relevance during the war: personnel reshuffles in the security forces and military decorations.
Mediazona reviewed changes in proportion of secret orders over the last 20 years and found that during the "special military operation" in Ukraine the number has reached a record high.
Soldiers who die in the war with Ukraine are usually posthumously awarded the Order of Courage. Of the 1,700+ reports on the deaths of Russian servicemen reviewed in the course of our investigation, this particular order is mentioned almost 600 times. We found no semblance of a pattern in these awards, and therefore suppose that almost every soldier killed in battle receives a posthumous order. However, reports don’t always mention it, especially social media posts by relatives of the deceased.
Kommersant Vlast' magazine previously reported that the Order of Courage is the most popular order in modern day Russia: in 2014 the number of servicemen with this decoration surpassed 80,000. The orders are signed by the head of state, and the documents are occasionally published on the Kremlin website but only if those awarded are rescue workers, policemen or national guardsmen, not military personnel.
The practice of decorating the military and those particularly close to the president with secret orders is over 20 years old. For example, as Sovershenno Sekretno magazine wrote in 2009, most of the Hero of Russia medals awarded during the two wars in Chechnya were awarded secretly. Similarly, Valeriy Gerasimov, Head of General Staff, received the Order of Saint George in 2015. The same applies to awards relating to subjects sensitive to the authorities; for example, journalists who covered the Crimean referendum in a manner the Kremlin approved of were secretly awarded medals.
It follows that those who fought in Ukraine are also decorated in secret: firstly, these documents contain their personal information, and secondly, these papers can reveal real casualty numbers, which are classified both in peacetime and during "special military operations".
Mediazona found mentions of the following secret orders:
Judging by the sequential numbering of these documents, almost a half of Putin’s orders have not been published since the war began, which is a record since 2002.
The graph indicates that during "special operations", with the exception of the five-day war in Georgia, the proportion of secret orders saw a steady increase: this was the case during the First and Second Chechen Wars, during Crimea annexation and the hostilities in Donbass; and now again we see the same uptick.
It is unlikely however that each and every order is specifically related to deceased or wounded servicemen. By law, acts that "contain state secrets or information of a confidential nature" are not published. Sociologist Kirill Titayev, who was reporting on this trend towards concealment of presidential orders in 2019, wrote that "information of a confidential nature" is very vague phrasing.
“It is no great shock that certain acts are not made public but the sheer number of the president’s decisions on key issues (there are specially designated decrees for more trivial matters) that turn out to be hidden from the public really makes one wonder,” wrote Titayev.
Editor: Dmitry Treshchanin
Text: Maxim Litavrin
Data: Sergey Golubev
Infographics: David Frenkel
Translation: Lily Samarine
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