More and more Russian families are finding out that the deaths of their loved ones in the Ukraine war are being covered up. Many do not dare to express their concerns openly. Meanwhile, a new round of conscription for conscripts seems increasingly likely.
Five fresh graves stand out through the deep, softly falling snow covering the Novokuibyshevsk municipal cemetery. “Denis, my son!” complains a woman. Not long ago, 27-year-old Denis was a young father and an engineer at the local oil refinery. In September he was drafted into the Russian army. In December he was in Ukraine.
His military career lasted a full six days: he was stationed in the notorious Makiivka barracks when they were hit by a salvo of Himar rockets on New Year’s Eve. His mother was lucky enough to get his body back intact. The sons of other families could only be identified by their DNA. “I told him don’t go, don’t go. But he remained stubborn. He said he couldn’t run away.”
Two weeks after the attack, the actual death toll in Makiivka remains a secret. The sons are unofficially buried by their families in the towns of southwest Russia’s Samara region, which housed most of the barracks’ soldiers. Local authorities claim only 89 men were killed but have refused to release a full list of the dead’s names.
At least 400 people are said to have died in Ukraine. Deni’s parents say the explosion was amplified by the trucks loaded with ammunition parked next to the barracks. They also suspect that the death toll could be in the hundreds.
Words weigh heavily in today’s Russia. Family members are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their financial compensation or worse. However, “Anna”, the sister of a wounded man, was willing to speak on condition that the interview be conducted anonymously. She confirmed that many relatives are angry because they believe things are being covered up. “The commanders accused the soldiers of giving away their positions by using cell phones,” she said.
“In fact, that allegation is just an attempt to detract from their gross negligence.” Anna’s brother escaped with a minor shoulder injury after being thrown by the blast. The soldier in the bed next to him died instantly. Anna doesn’t understand what Russia is fighting for. Many other relatives think the same way, she reports.
The families called on Vladimir Putin to limit the use of conscripts in his “special military operations,” in an open letter that appeared on a regional website on Jan. 10 but has since been deleted. It is unlikely that the letter will have any effect. There are even indications that a new wave of mobilizations is planned.
Ruslan Leviyev, an informant, reports that Kremlin officials have stopped ruling out this possibility in recent days. Several people connected to the “special operation” openly call for further mobilization. An independent journalist reported that the military authorities have set up green tents in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, in anticipation of another conscription action.
Russia has not yet deployed all of the approximately 300,000 soldiers from the first mobilization phase. However, those who have already arrived have managed to stabilize the front, Leviev says. However, it is difficult to imagine that Russia could launch another, longer offensive without another wave of conscription. However, a source for the Ukrainian military intelligence service is certain that even more conscripts would have little effect: Russia’s problem lies in the middle management and cannot be solved by increasing the workforce.
The informant expects that Russia will still try to recruit half a million soldiers before another spring offensive: “In addition to the new troops they need for an offensive, they have to compensate for the losses of hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded .”
The recent appointment of Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s previously aloof chief of staff, as supreme commander of the operation in Ukraine could point to a major offensive ahead. It could also be an attempt to re-establish the proper military chain of command over Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner battle group. Many in Moscow are concerned about the newfound influence of Prigozhin’s sadistic shadow army, which has led the fight in Bakhmut and Soledar, the bloodiest stretch of the front line.
Should there be another forced conscription, thousands of Russian men will try to leave the country. After the initial mobilization announcement on September 21, an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 men fled within a month. Others hid inside the country, some in dire circumstances.
Adam Kalinin, an IT specialist, has been living in a forest somewhere in southern Russia since September. Kalinin reported via an encrypted messenger app that he was happy with his new life and had everything he needed: a tent, a sleeping bag and a workstation for his computer, which he ran on solar power. He also recommended this to other conscientious objectors who are unable to leave the country (and who have some camping experience).
The massacre in Makiivka made many ordinary Russians think about the price of fighting in Ukraine. That is why the Russian authorities strictly control what is released to the public. The Economist correspondent was filmed and followed in the departure hall of Samara airport by a “blogger” apparently sent by local security.
Anna, the wounded soldier’s sister, prophesied that any attempt to conscript more men from the region would meet with fierce opposition from her family members. However, one cannot expect a public protest. People are not properly connected and too scared. “For a protest you need a strong community spirit and we have a little problem with that,” she said.
This text first appeared in The Economist and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.
*The article “A Russian city recognizes the bloody price of Putin’s war” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.