Svetlana Golub’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since February 24th. On the other side of the line, tearful relatives from all over Russia are feverishly trying to find out the whereabouts of their sons, brothers and husbands, who are waging a bloody war in Ukraine.
“This is crazy,” Golub says, pointing to his shiny phone. “We get hundreds and hundreds of calls. It’s a sea of tears.”
Golub is the director of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, an NGO that advocates for the rights of soldiers and has become the main point of contact for relatives of Russian soldiers concerned about their plight.
“See, I told you,” says Golub, who shrugs and answers another call as we speak in his office in a residential area in northeast Moscow.
“It goes on and on. Everyone is very busy, we constantly receive people, we receive applications. We represent the interests of families in court and inform the authorities,” says Golub.
Families of combatants received virtually no information about the involvement of their loved ones in the conflict. As the fighting continues, more relatives of tens of thousands of deployed soldiers flock to groups like the one led by Golub.
“Families are completely excluded. They did not even suspect that there would be a special operation, ”says the director.
In one of the calls received by the organization and listened to by The Guardian, the mother cries and begs Golub to find her son, whom the mother says she has not heard from since early February.
“I know the situation is really bad when families tell me they can no longer contact the soldiers,” Golub says.
they weren’t ready
In times of peace, the group often defends the rights of soldiers. But now all his efforts are focused on the war in Ukraine.
Golub explains that his organization uses its own database to track down soldiers and send inquiries to officials about their whereabouts and status.
Throughout the morning, the director receives calls from relatives who say that their loved ones do not want to fight in Ukraine. In one of them, a mother from the southern region of Dagestan says that her son, who is on the front line, told his officers that he did not want to participate in the conflict. He was told he had no choice.
“It shouldn’t be,” says Golub.
Despite the forecasts of Western intelligence agencies, Russian troops have not yet been able to quickly take Kyiv, and there are doubts about the state of mind and the preparation of troops.
Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military and a former US Marine, says the situation on the ground indicates that many soldiers appear unprepared for war.
“It is becoming clear that Putin only reported the invasion to very high-ranking officials. The soldiers seem completely unaware of their mission in Ukraine,” Li says.
This lack of preparation could have a “huge impact” on soldiers’ morale, Li said, as Russia prepares to intensify fighting and in turn faces strong and wide-ranging Ukrainian resistance.
“Soldiers must be psychologically prepared to take part in an insurgent war. It is emotionally very difficult to fight a country whose people do not want you to be there. The Russian military has already made some very serious mistakes both strategically and tactically.”
“The morale issue will grow if the fighting moves into cities, with all the fatal consequences that this type of warfare entails,” he adds.
how many dead are there
In addition to helping families trying to find relatives, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers also hopes to find the bodies of fallen soldiers.
Golub says they decided to take matters into their own hands when they realized the Defense Department was “behind” with the return of the bodies. So far, Russia has provided little information about the damage Ukraine has inflicted on its troops.
Last Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged for the first time that “among our comrades there are dead and wounded soldiers,” but added that “the number of nationalists [ucranianos] destroyed significantly exceeds the number of Russian losses. Three Russian regions said that soldiers from their territory died during the conflict.
This Wednesday, after nearly a week of conflict, Russia released the first casualty figures among its ranks in Ukraine. The official representative of the Russian Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, assured that 498 servicemen were killed and 1,597 were injured.
But Golub and independent military experts like Lee believe the country may be downplaying the true death toll. “Wars always lead to death of people. From the numerous conversations that have come down to me between soldiers and their families, I believe that many Russians have already died, ”says Golub. Other reports also point to the possibility that Russia could suffer heavy losses.
On Telegram, Ukrainian officials are posting candid photos that they say show the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in action. Ukraine said on Thursday that more than 9,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the first week of fighting. Data that is also impossible to verify.
You won’t get used to suffering
Golub only hopes that the fighting will end soon. “Conflicts are always associated with great suffering. Please, both sides should stop,” he says, adding that he would like to “lock Putin and Zelensky in the same room and not let them out until they find a solution.” “I would not give them water or bread to speed up the process,” Golub says.
Despite having received hundreds of calls and messages since the start of the war, Golub is visibly shaken by yet another call from his distraught mother.
“You will never get used to this suffering: it is impossible.”
Translated by Julian Knochert.
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