Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers an address in Kyiv on Feb. 27. President Zelensky said Ukraine was willing to hold talks with Russia, but rejected convening them in neighbouring Belarus as it was being used as a launchpad for Moscow's invasion Credit - Ukraine Presidency—AFP/Getty Images
As representatives gathered for the United Nation’s first emergency session in decades on Monday, the most pointed moment came when Ukraine’s Ambassador highlighted not the plight of his countrymen, but of the young Russian soldiers invading his homeland.
“Mom, I’m in Ukraine,” Sergiy Kyslytsya read out in Russian, from printed text messages that he said were the last conversation between a Russian soldier and his mother before he was killed. “There is a real war raging here. I am afraid. We are bombing all of the cities, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us… They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.”
Kyslytsya asked representatives to “visualize the magnitude of the tragedy” by imagining the “more than 30 souls of killed Russian soldiers” next to the nameplate of every country. “Just imagine those people next to you,” he said.
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly emphasized the tragic death toll of Russian soldiers, often expressing empathy for them and their families back home. They have described them as often misguided young conscripts, ill-equipped and tricked into fighting in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. As casualties have mounted, so have Ukrainian officials’ efforts to appeal directly to the Russian people, saying they are being lied to about a war Moscow still calls a “special operation”. More than 5,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or injured in the conflict, Western intelligence officials estimated on Tuesday.
As high-level talks in Belarus ended Monday without a ceasefire amid continued Russian shelling, Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov appealed directly to Russian troops in the country. “Russian soldier! You were brought to our land to kill and die,” he said in a statement posted on social media in which he offered full amnesty and monetary compensation if they laid down their weapons. “Don’t follow criminal orders.”
Reznikov emphasized that many of the Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian forces are very young. “The Kremlin turns them into criminals, turns them into murderers… some of them were deceived, some were bombed with propaganda or intimidated,” he alleged, saying they were offering soldiers a chance to “start a new life.” But he ended with the warning: “For those who continue to behave like an occupier, there will be no mercy.”
This message has also been echoed in popular propaganda videos filmed by Ukrainian soldiers, mixing expletive-laden threats and bravado with dashes of sympathy. “You’re all young boys, you don’t want to die here,” one soldier says in a viral video purporting to be a message to Russian troops from “Kyiv’s Defenders.” “I know that very well. You have no idea where you’re going… So surrender, kiddos. We will feed you, give you water, no one will harass you. Unlike you, we don’t kill non-armed people.”
Kyiv has also tried to undermine domestic support for the war in Russia and to break through to the public there by appealing directly to the families of captured soldiers. As Russia continues not to disclose information about casualties, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has set up an effort called Ishchi Svoikh, or “Look For Your Own,” for Russians to identify killed or captured relatives.
“I am talking to you in Russian because this site was created for you,” Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, said in a video noting that the Russian government had not responded to their efforts to facilitate the return of their troops’ remains. “I know that many Russians are worried about how and where their children, sons, husbands are and what is happening to them—so we decided to put this online so that each of you could search for your loved one who Putin sent to fight in Ukraine.”
Through its website and its Telegram channel, the effort has posted videos of captured Russian soldiers. (The initiative’s website was immediately blocked in Russia, reportedly at the request of the country’s Prosecutor-General’s Office.) In some of them, Russian soldiers are filmed while being allowed to call home. This had the intended effect, with videos of demoralized soldiers being widely shared on social media and messaging apps. “Mama and papa, I didn’t want to come here. They forced me to,” a soldier says in one of the videos, a refrain repeated by several others.
Russian families who have recognized loved ones in these videos have expressed shock and anger, with many saying they had no idea they were fighting in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on whether these posts violate the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the treatment of prisoners of war, including the use of images of captured soldiers. A spokesperson for the ICRC told TIME that Russian prisoners “must be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”
These efforts to publicize Russian soldiers’ whereabouts have grimly contrasted with previous reports, confirmed by the British Ministry of Defense, that Russia has prepared mobile crematoriums to use in the conflict. “If I was a soldier and knew that my generals had so little faith in me that they followed me around the battlefield with a mobile crematorium, or I was the mother or father of a son, potentially deployed into a combat zone, and my government thought that the way to cover up losses was a mobile crematorium, I’d be deeply, deeply worried,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told The Telegraph.
Western officials have similarly adopted pointed rhetoric when referring to the conflict, placing it squarely on one man’s shoulders. In a call with reporters on Feb. 26, a U.S. administration official repeatedly referred to the conflict as “Putin’s war of choice.” When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new round of crippling economic measures the following day, she also called it “Putin’s War.” In President Joe Biden’s address to the nation on Feb 24, he also spoke directly to Russians. “To the citizens of Russia: you are not our enemy,” he said, “and I don’t believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine.”
This tone was set by Zelensky himself who, in a televised speech on the eve of the invasion, spoke directly to the Russian people in their own language. “They’re telling you that this flame will liberate the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free,” Zelensky said. “Ukraine on your TV news and the real Ukraine are two totally different countries… Do Russians want war? I would like to answer that question, but the answer depends only on you.”
It’s unclear what impact these efforts will have. There are indications that morale is sagging among Russian troops on the ground, with some surrendering without a fight and many running out of fuel and food, a senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday. But the Russian government is still fighting to control the narrative. It has throttled access to Facebook, blocked websites set up by the Ukrainian government, and reportedly ordered media outlets not to use words like “attack,” “invasion” and “war.” On Tuesday, Moscow moved further to stem the spread of what they called “deliberately false information” about its invasion of Ukraine, blocking in Russia an independent TV channel and a liberal radio station, and even threatening to block Wikipedia there.
Despite those measures, there are signs that the invasion is growing more unpopular, especially with the Russian economy facing catastrophic consequences. In rare and often risky shows of dissent, Russian anti-war protestors have demonstrated across the country, according to the Russian monitoring group OVD-Info. Almost 6,000 of them have been arrested.
For now, with negotiations stalled and mounting casualties on both sides, it’s clear that Ukrainian officials intend to keep trying to get through. Asked if he had a message for Russian soldiers on Sunday, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the camera “Go back home. You have nothing to find here.”
With reporting by W.J. Hennigan/Washington