As much as Russia tries to hide the presence of Russian troops in the eastern Ukraine (Donbas) those troops have become more and more visible to the general public. This was not much of a problem for the Russians as long as these troops were volunteers but apparently a growing number of conscripts were sent in. Russia has an official policy of not sending conscripts into combat zones unless war is declared. But some commanders believed that if conscripts volunteered (and signed a document attesting to that) they could be sent into Donbas. Apparently some conscripts, caught up in the nationalist “NATO is conspiring against us” propaganda the government has been pumping out with increasing frequency and intensity, really did sign the document willingly. They were also encouraged by the much higher pay offered for those serving in a combat zone. But as it always happens in the military, some volunteers were acting under duress or were deceived when told signing the contract was a formality to justify the extra money for some “special training exercises inside Russia”. Some of these volunteers later figured out where they really were and deserted inside Ukraine and have been sharing details of their experiences with Ukrainians and others outside Russia. This sort of thing is officially denied and denounced by the Russian government via the government controlled mass media. But the Internet is another thing and there are a growing number of Russians who call out their government for lying about what is going on in Ukraine and for forcing conscripts into combat zones. Some of those conscripts have been sent back to their families in sealed coffins with the explanation that it was because of a training accident. But soldiers who served with some of the dead soldiers, especially those who were also conscripts, are providing more accurate and embarrassing (to the Russian government) versions of what went on.
Over a thousand Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Donbas during the last year and the Russian government is finding it impossible to manage the news about what is happening there. This is particularly troublesome because conscription has become very unpopular in Russia, especially since 1991. A reaction to that was the reduction of conscript service to twelve months and the law that forbids sening conscripts into combat. In response to this media mess the Russian military is carefully screening who it sends into Ukraine to eliminate those who might change their minds. This means more conscripts from less affluent parts of Russia (Siberia and the Far East), to whom the extra pay means more and the danger is not as daunting, are selected.
The rebel controlled areas of Donbas are not heavily policed and many of the civilians there don’t want to be ruled by Russia but keep their mouths shut and their cell phone cameras active. With the addition of commercial satellite photos and military grade satellite photos released by the United States it has been possible to identify the extent of the Russian effort. Russia still pushes the official line that they have no troops in Ukraine and call any evidence to the contrary another example of how clever and insidious the NATO plot against Russia is. So far this is gaining some traction inside Russia but not so much anywhere else.