Moscow: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday banned revealing information about troop deaths in "special operations" during peacetime, as the Kremlin continues to rebuff accusations its soldiers are fighting in Ukraine.
The strongman signed an amendment adding to what Russia classifies as "state secrets" any "information revealing losses of personnel... in peacetime during special operations."
The addition means that those who disclose details about the deaths of soldiers sent on operations during peacetime could be prosecuted.
The decree gives no details of what exactly is meant by a "special operation". Revealing state secrets, when it does not involve handing them to a foreign state, is a criminal offence that can be punished by up to four years in jail.
Analysts said the legal change was aimed at stamping out any leaks on Russian military losses in Ukraine after activists released a string of evidence pointing to the deaths of government soldiers across the border in the former Soviet state.
"The reason is not to reveal losses in Donbass," said military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, referring to the war zone in eastern Ukraine, adding that the legal move was designed to "imprison or scare people".
"I`ve never heard a legal definition of the concept of a special operation," said Felgenhauer. "That means you could classify anything you like as this."The Kremlin decree came as reports have pointed to a massing of Russian equipment close to the Ukraine border.
An AFP photographer in recent days saw Russian military vehicles loaded on a freight train in the southern Rostov region, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
The photographer also saw Russian military vehicles at a training camp some 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the border.
The Kremlin has consistently denied government soldiers are fighting in Ukraine and claimed those fighting alongside rebels are there as volunteers.
Ukraine and the West insist Russia has not only armed and equipped the rebels but also sent in troops to spearhead fighting against Kiev`s forces.
NATO has said rebels are using a lull in the fighting due to a shaky truce to bolster their forces ahead of possible new offensive.
The presence of Russian troops in east Ukraine has been backed up by reports from activists of hushed-up funerals, interviews with soldiers in the Russian media, and information gathered from relatives and social networking sites.
US-based think tank Atlantic Council released a report Wednesday detailing "irrefutable evidence of direct Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine" that researchers gathered from open sources.The tightening of the state secrets act prompted an outraged reaction from Kremlin critics.
"Now the activity of looking for victims of `special operations` in Ukraine will be a breach of state secrets," warned opposition leader and lawyer Alexei Navalny on his blog.
"Let the soldiers die and their relatives keep quiet. Those who don`t agree, we`ll jail for espionage."
Rights lawyer Nikolai Polozov wrote on Twitter: "If you want, you needn`t bother giving relatives an insurance payout and a pension, and they won`t tell anyone."
According to the latest survey by independent polling agency Levada published on May 5, only 20 percent of Russians believe government forces are fighting in Ukraine.
Forty-eight percent said they believed Russians were serving there as volunteers.