Angry families say Russian conscripts thrown to front line unprepared

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Irina Sokolova’s husband, a Russian soldier mobilized to fight in Ukraine, called her last month from the forest there, crying, almost breaking down.

“They lie on TV,” he cried, referring to state television propagandists who downplay Russia’s failures and portray a war for Russia’s survival against the United States and its allies.

Sokolova, 37, also cried for him and their nearly one-year-old son, she said. by phone from his home in Voronezh, western Russia.

Sokolova is among dozens of soldiers’ spouses and other relatives who have expressed their anger and fear in extremely public — and risky — ways over the horrific conditions new conscripts have faced on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Relatives of the soldiers, usually people who would normally stay out of politics, have drawn the Kremlin’s ire by posting videos online and in independent Russian media, even speaking to foreign journalists. They say mobilized soldiers were deployed into battle with little training, poor equipment and often without clear orders. According to their families, many are exhausted and confused. Some wander for days lost in the forest. Others refuse to fight.

“Of course, he had no idea how terrible it would be there,” Sokolova told The Washington Post. “We watch our federal television channels and they say everything is perfect.

The relatives don’t usually criticize President Vladimir Putin or even the war, but their videos have shed light on the morale of many of the conscripts as Russia tries to overcome its recent losses by throwing 318,000 reinforcements into the battle.

Yana, a transport worker from St. Petersburg, was an ardent pro-war patriot until her partner was mobilized.

In a phone interview, Yana confirmed stories from other military spouse videos that the men had to buy their own warm uniforms and boots and received little training. In Ukraine, they were given neither food nor water.

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“They don’t have any orders and they don’t have any tasks,” she said. “I spoke to my husband yesterday and he said they have no idea what to do. They were just abandoned and lost all confidence in the government.

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In the videos, the wives recite lists of grievances in trembling voices. Conscripts pose with armor barely covering their ribs or film themselves in the forests of Ukraine, naming the dead and complaining that their officers are nowhere to be seen.

Details of the videos could not be independently verified, but are consistent with accounts given by family members in interviews with The Post and reports by independent Russian media such as ASTRA, which revealed seven basements of Luhansk deserters.

September 22 Sokolova’s husband was mobilized to fight in the 252nd motorized rifle regiment. He told her that he had not received military training, “and on September 26 he was already in Ukraine,” she said.

He made the call late last month after barely surviving a major battle in which his unit was surrounded and many were killed. He and two other people escaped without backpacks and warm gear, but got lost and wandered in the forest.

“They were thrown into the fire, so to speak, on the very front line, but they are not military. They don’t know how to fight. They can’t do it,” said Sokolova, adding that her husband was in severe pain from pancreatitis. “I can feel how scared he is there,” she said. “My heart is breaking.”

Families of other men mobilized to fight in the regiment said their loved ones were sent to the front line near Svatovye, a small town in the Luhansk region, on their first day in Ukraine and given one shovel among 30 men to dig trenches. Speaking in a joint video appeal, sent for the first time to independent Russian media outlet Vyorstka, they said the commanders had “escaped” and the men faced three days of intense shelling.

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On November 3, according to their video account, several dozen soldiers of the mobilized regiment walked about 100 miles to Milova, on the Russian border, and demanded to return to their base near Voronezh.

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They were briefly taken to nearby Valuyki in Russia, but their request was ignored. “We wrote applications. We wrote reports. We did everything, but no one listens to us. Nobody wants to hear us,” said soldier Konstantin Voropayev in a video that also appealed for legal help.

That same day, Sokolova’s husband called her in a panic from Valuyki, saying that he and the others were being sent back to battle.

October 28 Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that the early problems with the provision and training of mobilized troops had been resolved.

Military analyst Konrad Muzyka of Poland-based Rochan Consulting wrote in a recent analysis that despite the conscripts’ “extraordinary morale,” their sheer numbers could help Russia on the battlefield.

As the videos mount, Russian authorities are losing patience. One mobilized soldier, Aleksandr Leshkov, faces up to 15 years in prison for swearing at an officer in a video, pushing him and grabbing him with a low-quality unit jacket, his lawyer Henri Tsiskarishvili said.

“This is profanation, imitation of shooting, imitation of exercises, imitation of formation,” Leškov raged.

Yana and her husband, who have a 4-year-old son, were married along with 43 other couples just before their men were sent off to war. The Post agreed to withhold her full name to protect her from arrest and prosecution.

In the couple’s apartment, the television was always on, spewing the Kremlin line that Russia was at war with the United States, not Ukraine. “We don’t know anything else,” said Yana. “We’re so used to believing what we’re told.”

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But after her husband was drafted, she gave up the TV because it made her “aggressive”. She said she feared for her husband’s life, but did not blame Putin “because he is a reasonable person.”

“We are completely confused, lost and feel abandoned,” she said. “We cry from morning till night.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Kremlin propaganda is working — so far — with video protests that aren’t anti-Putin or even anti-war.

“Putin wants people to share responsibility for the war with him,” Kolesnikov said. “He wants their bodies and lives to be sacrificed on the altar of fighting NATO, the West and global evil.” This strategy of glorifying cannon fodder and glorifying death is risky in a more or less modernized society that was not prepared to physically engage in the trenches.

After repeated military failures and heavy casualties, support for the war is waning. November 1 an independent poll by the Levada Center reported that 57 percent of Russians wanted peace talks, while 36 percent wanted to continue fighting.

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Sokolova said that relatives of mobilized men “understand what is happening, but people whose relatives were not mobilized see the world through rose-colored glasses. They have no idea what’s going on and they don’t care.

Yana told her son that his father is a superhero who fights evil. The tale is consistent with Russian imperialist propaganda, but deeply untrue. In her heart, Yana was afraid that her husband would never call again, and that her son would grow up without a father.

“I am a simple woman and I want to live in peace,” she said. “That’s all I want.”

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