Growing number of Russians believe Moscow is lying about Ukraine
More starting to believe Moscow is lying about military involvement
The secret funerals are back. So are motherly measures. Even soccer officials are sniping at each other. As the Ukrainian-Russian conflict enters its sixth month, there are signs from inside Russia that a nation's nerves are beginning to fray.
Evidence of the extent of Russian military involvement in Ukraine has been dribbling out of conflict areas for months. Last week, it reached a level at which Ukrainian and Western officials finally referred to it as invasion. But recently, from press accounts and other sources, it has also been leaking into Russia itself, despite an official government policy that what is happening in Ukraine is all about Ukraine.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian dissident who was jailed for a decade, then released suddenly last winter by Russian President Vladimir Putin, posted a statement on his website on Thursday saying it was time to acknowledge reality.
"We are fighting Ukraine - for real," he wrote. "We are sending soldiers and equipment."
But, he asked, why was Russia not publicly acknowledging this? His answer: this effort is nothing more than the latest example of a long-standing tradition.
"All this time our authorities have been lying through their teeth, just like they did about Afghanistan back in the '80s; and about Chechnya in the '90s," he wrote.
The reasons why Khodorkovsky and a growing number of those inside the Russian information bubble believe their nation is lying to them are increasing.
After more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed in a single battle inside Ukraine in mid-August, media reports noted that their bodies were being returned with death certificates structured to make it appear that they died elsewhere.
A group of Russian mothers realised that instead of the official military story - that their boys had been sent out on a training mission in Russia - their sons were now prisoners of war in Ukraine.
On Friday, Russia officially labelled a St Petersburg soldiers' mothers group as "foreign agents", a highly insulting term requiring them to note this status in fundraising and information efforts. In recent weeks, stories have begun to appear in Russian media about mothers around Russia confused by the seemingly secret deaths and burials of their military sons.
One mother, recalling how in Chechnya it often came down to mothers themselves heading into conflict zones to negotiate the return of their captured soldier sons, said: "If the government won't act, it looks like once again it's time for motherly measures."
But perhaps the most public and semi-official example of the mood inside Russia surrounds soccer and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Among the international bodies that have not recognised Crimea as Russian is the Union of European Football Associations and the Federation of International Football Associations. They insist that unless Ukraine agrees to allow Crimean teams to play in Russia, other games in Russia will not be officially recognised.
The fallout of that dispute could be serious. Inside Russia, there is pressure from Putin's government to fully integrate Crimea into Russian daily life, and that includes soccer. To Putin, Crimea has a symbolic importance to Russia. But so does the 2018 World Cup that was awarded to Russia, and which European nations are now insisting be moved.
EU gives Moscow fresh ultimatum over Ukraine
European Union leaders have given Russia a week to reverse course in Ukraine or face a new round of sanctions as Kiev warned it was on the brink of "full-scale war" with Moscow.
There are fears that the confrontation on the EU's eastern borders could grow after Russia allegedly sent troops to back a new offensive by pro-Kremlin rebels in southeastern Ukraine.
EU President Herman van Rompuy said the 28 leaders meeting in Brussels had agreed to take "further significant steps" if Moscow did not back down.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, had been ordered to produce options for new sanctions within a week, he said.
"Everybody is fully aware that we have to act quickly given the evolution on the ground and the tragic loss of life of the last days," van Rompuy said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new sanctions would build on existing measures against Russia, which mainly cover financial services, armaments and energy.
The sanctions plan came after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Brussels to urge the EU to take tougher steps against Russia, which he accused of "military aggression and terror".
The EU and the United States have already slapped sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukrainian crisis, including Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March.
Poroshenko will travel to the Nato summit in Wales this week to meet US President Barack Obama and seek practical help from the Western alliance.