Irina Sokolova’s husband, a Russian soldier mobilized to fight in Ukraine, called her from a forest there last month, sobbing, almost broken.
Sokolova, 37, cried for him too, and for their nearly year-old baby son, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Voronezh, in western Russia.
Sokolova is among dozens of soldier’s spouses and other relatives who are voicing remarkably public — and risky — anger and fear over the terrible conditions that new conscripts have faced on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The soldiers’ relatives, mostly people who would normally stay out of politics, are tempting the wrath of the Kremlin by posting videos online and in Russian independent media, and even speaking to foreign journalists. They say that mobilized soldiers were deployed into battle with little training, poor equipment and often no clear orders. Many are exhausted and confused, according to their families. Some wander lost in the woods for days. Others refuse to fight.
“Of course he had no idea how terrible it would be there,” Sokolova told The Washington Post. “We watch our federal TV channels and they say that everything is perfect.”
The relatives typically do not criticize President Vladimir Putin or even the war, but their videos have exposed the rock-bottom morale of many conscripts, as Russia tries to surmount its recent losses by throwing a claimed 318,000 reinforcements into battle.
Yana, a transport worker from St. Petersburg, was a fervent pro-war patriot until her partner was mobilized.
In a phone interview, Yana confirmed video accounts by other military spouses that the men had to buy their own warm uniforms and boots and had little training. In Ukraine, they were given no food or water.
“They do not have any orders and they do not have any tasks,” she said. “I spoke to my husband yesterday and he said that they have no clue what to do. They were just abandoned and they have lost all trust, all faith in the authorities.”
On the videos, wives recite lists of grievances in tremulous voices. Conscripts pose in body armor that barely covers their ribs or film themselves in Ukrainian forests, listing their dead and complaining their officers are nowhere to be seen.
Details in the videos could not be independently verified but are consistent with accounts that family members provided in interviews with The Post, and with reports by independent Russian media, such as ASTRA, which exposed seven basement prisons for deserters in Luhansk.
Sokolova’s husband was mobilized to fight in the 252nd Motorized Rifle Regiment on Sept. 22. He told her that he received no military training “and by Sept. 26, he was already in Ukraine,” she said.
He phoned late last month, having barely survived a major battle in which his unit was surrounded and many were killed. He and two others escaped without their backpacks and warm gear but were lost and ended up wandering in a forest.
“They were thrown in into the fire, so to speak, on the very first front line, but they’re not military men. They don’t know how to fight. They cannot do this,” Sokolova said, adding that her husband was in severe pain with pancreatitis. “I feel how awful it is for him there,” she said. “My heart is being torn apart.”
Families of other men mobilized to fight in the regiment said their loved ones were sent to the front line near Svatove, a small city in the Luhansk region, on their first day in Ukraine and given one shovel between 30 men to dig trenches. Speaking in a joint video appeal first sent to independent Russian media Vyorstka, they said the commanders “ran away,” leaving the men to face three days of heavy shelling.
Several dozen mobilized soldiers from the regiment walked some 100 miles to Milove, on the Russian border, and demanded to return to their base near Voronezh, according to their video account on Nov. 3.
They were taken briefly to nearby Valuyki in Russia, but their request was ignored. “We wrote applications. We wrote reports. We did everything, but no one listens to us. Nobody wants to hear us,” a soldier, Konstantin Voropayev, said in the video, in which he also requested legal help.
Sokolova’s husband called her in a panic the same day from Valuyki, saying he and others were being sent right back into battle.
On Oct. 28, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that early problems equipping and training mobilized soldiers were resolved.
Military analyst Konrad Muzyka, of Poland-based Rochan Consulting, wrote in a recent analysis that despite the “abysmal morale” of conscripts the sheer volume of them could help Russia on the battlefield.
As the videos proliferate, Russian authorities appear to be losing patience. One mobilized soldier, Alexander Leshkov, faces up to 15 years in prison after swearing at an officer in a video, pushing him, and griping about the unit’s low-grade flak jackets, said his lawyer, Henri Tsiskarishvili.
“This is a profanation, an imitation of shooting, an imitation of exercises, an imitation of a formation,” Leshkov raged.
Yana and her husband, who have a 4-year-old son, were married with 43 other couples right before the men were sent to war. The Post agreed not to use her full name to shield her from arrest and prosecution.
In the couple’s apartment, the television was always on, pouring out the Kremlin’s line that Russia is fighting the United States, not Ukraine. “We don’t know anything else,” Yana said. “We are so used to believing in what we are told.”
But after her husband was drafted, she gave the television away because it was making her “aggressive.” She said she fears for her husband’s life but said she does not blame Putin, “because he is a smart person.”
“We are absolutely confused, at a loss, and we feel abandoned,” she said. “We’re crying from morning till night.”
Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Kremlin’s propaganda is working — for now — with the video protests not directed at Putin, or even at the war.
“Putin wants people to share responsibility for the war with him,” Kolesnikov said. “He wants their bodies and lives to be sacrificed on the altar of the struggle against NATO, the West, and global evil. This strategy of glorifying cannon fodder and heroizing death is risky, in a more-or-less modernized society which wasn’t ready to be involved physically in the trenches.”
After repeated military setbacks and high casualties, support for the war is waning. Levada Center independent pollster reported on Nov. 1 that 57 percent of Russians want peace talks while 36 percent want to keep fighting.
Sokolova said that the relatives of mobilized men “realize what is going on, but people whose relatives were not mobilized see the world through rose-colored glasses. They have no idea what’s going on, and they’re not interested.”
Yana told her son that his father is a superhero, fighting evil. The fairy tale matches Russia’s imperialist propaganda, yet deep down, it does not ring true. At heart, Yana said she is terrified her husband will never phone again and her son will grow up with no father.
“I am just an ordinary woman and I want to live in peace,” she said. “That’s all I want.”