Back in the Soviet era, the Kremlin had a simple strategy for dealing with combat casualties in messy foreign wars like the one in Afghanistan: near silence on the subject.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin confronts a more complicated reality as his government grapples with publicly acknowledging military deaths in Ukraine, where tens of thousands of Russian troops seeking to seize control are facing unexpectedly fierce resistance from Ukrainian defenders.
In a social media age, it is difficult for Russian authorities to fully contain and control searing battlefield images flooding the internet: scenes of Russian soldiers’ snow-covered corpses, or plaintive video footage of young Russian POWs saying they had expected to be welcomed as liberators.
In response, Russian censors moved to block Russians’ access to Facebook and some foreign news sites, and the government has thrown its full weight behind a long-running media campaign demonizing Ukraine’s leaders. With the war in its second week, independent media outlets in Russia are being silenced and a new law threatens to criminalize critical coverage.
Even so, some Russians have heard enough to voice dismay about the conflict and its aims.
“It is a catastrophe, a tragedy and disgrace,” said Alexandra Lanskaya, a 58-year-old Moscow businesswoman and mother of three sons ranging in age from 15 to 25. “I feel very strongly opposed to the fact that our country descended to such a low point. ”
Analysts say, though, that it is unlikely military losses alone would galvanize a groundswell strong enough to threaten Putin’s grip on power.
Repressive regimes like Russia’s “are relatively secretive and inaccurate with regard to casualties, because casualties alienate some of the citizenry,” said Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor at New York University who studies authoritarian leaders.
But he and others saw little sign that Putin or his government would be blamed for the costs in servicemembers’ lives.
“They’re still working very hard to suppress information about casualties,” said Michael Kofman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. However, he said even if people are angry to hear of soldiers dying, the Russian public has been thoroughly primed to pin any responsibility on NATO and the West.
So far, Russian officials ‘public statements have sought to thread a needle: acknowledging that soldiers’ lives are being sacrificed, but portraying the cause as a righteous fight to “denazify” Ukraine.
Russia waited until seven days into conflict to address the issue of battlefield losses, with the Defense Ministry saying Wednesday that 498 Russian service members had been killed and more than 1,500 wounded – a figure immediately met with skepticism by Western officials and analysts.
Nick Reynolds, who researches land warfare for the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank, called the Russian figure “unrealistically low.” He said Ukraine’s counterclaim that the combined tally of Russian dead and wounded exceeded 9,000 seemed “high, but not out of the realm of possibility.”
In his first personal acknowledgment of military losses, Putin said in a nationally televised address Thursday night that families of the dead each would be entitled to a special payment of 5 million rubles, or almost $ 50,000. While Western officials and analysts have alluded to low troop morale, troubled supply chains and a host of logistical difficulties for invading Russian forces, the Russian president insisted in his speech that the military campaign was proceeding “strictly according to the schedule.”
Moscow’s military operations have been bolstered by a powerful public relations effort, spearheaded by state media outlets that still command a large and loyal audience. For weeks before the war began, Ukraine was painted as a threat to Russia, not the other way around. Once the offensive got underway, it was officially deemed a “special military operation,” never an invasion or war.
In Russia’s past wars, the word of military losses sometimes filtered out from military families demanding to know the fate of loved ones serving in the army – or worse, receiving no word until a body bag arrived. But there has been a concerted official effort to discourage grass-roots groups that help military families from questioning war aims.
Valentina Melnikova, a founder of the Soldiers ‘Mothers Committee, a group that serves as a point of contact for relatives trying to pinpoint missing service members’ whereabouts, described the frantic anxiety of parents who suddenly realized that sons with whom they lost contact in recent days might be captured or dead in Ukraine.
“I don’t even want to discuss the emotional state of the callers,” she said. “We don’t let them cry, so they don’t break our hearts.”
But Melnikova was quick to insist that neither her group nor the military families questioned the reb overall aims.
“Nothing worries them about the war itself,” she said of the distraught parents.
Ukrainian leaders have sought to capitalize on the notion that young Russian foot soldiers are viewed by their own commanders as little more than hapless cannon fodder. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyin a video address this week, likened Russian recruits to “confused children who have been used.”
Ukrainian officials and volunteers have also helped captured prisoners of war contact their families, and are amplifying stories of frightened, disheartened Russian troops.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations this week read on the assembly floor what were purported to have been final text messages from a Russian soldier to his mother, expressing horror and bewilderment.
“Mama, it’s so hard,” the message read.
With growing indications that the military push against Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is foundering, any talk of battlefield setbacks is strictly forbidden by Russian officials. The Duma, Russia’s parliament, has passed a bill making it a crime, punishable by up to 15 years in jail, to spread what it called “fake news” about the Russian military.
The few remaining independent news outlets are under intense pressure, with the venerable Echo of Moscow radio station going off the air and the liberal TV Rain halting broadcasts in recent days. That, and the curtailment of social media platforms, has made it very difficult for most Russians to access factual information about the war, said Joanna Szostek, a University of Glasgow expert in Russian political communication.
“Eventually, the Russian death toll in Ukraine will have an impact on Russian public opinion,” Szostek wrote in an email. “But it may take a very long time for accurate information to reach most Russians.”
Still, internal contradictions in the Kremlin’s official messaging send a signal to some Russians, especially the young.
“The official narrative has been that Russia was not going to attack anybody, but we would powerfully fight back if we were attacked,” said Pyotr Peshev, an 18-year-old university student in Moscow. “I can’t understand who we are defending ourselves against right now.”
Korobtsova is a special correspondent and King a staff writer.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.