President Putin has directly addressed the mothers of soldiers serving in Ukraine, telling them: “I know how worried you are” and trying to reassure them. But some mothers, grandmothers, sisters and girlfriends have been telling the BBC they are desperately anxious about loved ones in the military – young men who appear to have had little idea what they were being sent to do.
All names have been changed
When Marina hadn’t heard from her grandson for more than a week, she started making calls. In his final message to her, he said he was on the Belarus-Ukraine border and would be home soon. But with no news since, she fears the worst.
“I phoned his military unit, they said he hadn’t left [Russia]. ‘I said – are you joking? He contacted me from Belarus. Do you not know where your soldiers go?’ They hung up and didn’t talk to me any more.”
Marina’s grandson Nikita was originally a conscript. Men in Russia aged 18-27 who do not have an exemption – such as studying or looking after young children – are drafted into the military for a year.
But Marina says in Nikita’s first few days of service, representatives of military units arrived in their region, hoping to get conscripts to become contracted soldiers in order to lengthen their military service and earn a salary. Contractors make up the bulk of Russia’s junior service personnel.
They “convinced him”… “[They told him] you can retire early, you will have a steady salary, you will learn how to drive.”
Nikita became a driver in a mechanised infantry division, but his earnings did not translate into a comfortable standard of living. His monthly salary of 18,000 roubles – $240 (£180) before the rouble crashed – was just enough to get by on in rural Russia. And, he told his grandmother, he was expected to pay for uniform and petrol out of that salary. He had free accommodation in barracks but could not bear the freezing conditions – there was no heating or hot water – so had to pay for rent as well, she says.
It is difficult to establish how common Nikita’s experience is, but the scores of Russian companies who help young men find loopholes to avoid the draft suggest the army is not seen as an attractive prospect.
In mid-February, Nikita told his grandmother he was moving to the Ukraine-Belarus border “to guard it”. He also told her he had heard they would soon be returning home.
There has been no word from him since he last texted her on 23 February – a Russian public holiday – to say he was at a concert.
She is certain her grandson had no idea he would be sent into combat in Ukraine.
“He said, ‘It’s drills and more drills and then we go home’,” a line repeated by many Russian soldiers’ relatives we spoke to.
Another woman, Galina, says she only realised her son Nikolai was in Ukraine when her sister spotted his photo on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s armed forces’ chief as a POW.
A US Pentagon briefing on Friday suggested that a significant number of the men fighting in Ukraine are conscripts, and that might account for their inexperience and lack of awareness about what they were expected to do.
But it appears the men’s belief – that they were simply on drills rather than being sent into combat – was not unique to conscripts. Like Marina’s grandson Nikita – and many of the other men whose relatives we spoke to – Galina’s son Nikolai began as a conscript, but was now a contracted soldier.
Galina says she last heard from Nikolai the day before her sister spotted his photo, when he told her his unit was near the Ukrainian border.
“I don’t know what to do. The media is silent about the fact that our guys were captured. Or they don’t know.”
Nikolai’s girlfriend says he became a contract soldier last December to “provide for his future family”, despite her efforts to dissuade him. His mother adds that there are no other opportunities to earn decent money locally.
“My child did not go [to Ukraine] of his own free will, the commander-in-chief sent him there,” she says.
“To be honest, I don’t understand what it’s all for,” she says. “In our country, some people have nothing to eat. I don’t understand any war or any military action.
“Whose door should I knock on to get my child back?”
This sense of impotence is shared by another mother the BBC spoke to, whose son also worked as a contract soldier and was sent away on “drills”.
“If I knew where he is now, I would have packed up myself and gone to these people and begged them for mercy,” she says.
Historically, soldiers’ mothers in Russia have been outspoken about how the military has been deployed and treated, and have agitated for the authorities to be more open about casualty figures.
They played a particularly significant role in agitating against both of Russia’s Chechen wars, waging a widely publicised campaign.
But a new law passed in the country last week threatens anyone seen to be spreading what the government deems “fakes” about military action in Ukraine with 15 years in jail.
The Russian public has also been exposed to powerful anti-Ukraine propaganda from Russian state-run media. The sister of one man she believes is missing in Ukraine said she thought there must be a good reason for the invasion.
“And now we are called to rallies. To me it looks like they [Ukraine] have destroyed their [own] country, and now they want to destroy another.”
Ukraine has sought to counter that propaganda with a powerful campaign of its own. A helpline called “Look for your own” (Ishchi Svoikh in Russian) was first advertised on day three of what Russia was describing as a “special military operation to demilitarise and denazify” the country. A companion Telegram channel carries photos of Russian POWs and casualties, and encourages worried relatives to get in touch. The Washington Post has highlighted concerns about the publication of the graphic images.
“This is our gesture of good will to the Russian mothers,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych announced.
A flyer carried on the Ukrainian interior ministry Facebook page goes even further, making a direct call to Russian mothers to come and collect their sons, and gives specific instructions about what to do.
“We, Ukrainian people, in contrast to [Russian President] Putin’s fascists, do not make war with mothers and their captured sons,” it says.
Despite these appeals, all the relatives we spoke to had no view on the legitimacy of Russia’s action in Ukraine or supported it.
But the text exchange of one woman with her soldier fiance – which she showed to the BBC – suggested that in his case he did not buy into the Russian rhetoric that they were entering Ukraine to “liberate” the population.
In it, he tells his fiance that he is off on “a tour around some countries” – possibly referring to Russia’s ally and neighbour Belarus – before saying he is going to “defend the defenceless, LOL”.
When she asks “Are you joking?” he simply replies: “No. I am going to war.”
Russia finally published death toll figures for its combatants in the invasion last week, saying that as of 3 March 498 Russian troops had been killed and a further 1,597 injured. But Ukraine says that more than 11,000 Russian military have been killed, though this cannot be verified.