In a dimly lit room, a dozen or so men in Russian military uniforms, their faces concealed by dark balaclavas, stood around a man reading out a letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin.
“We ask that our guys be recalled from this assault as they do not possess the necessary training or experience,” the man pleaded, his voice artificially warped to protect his identity. “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, we are asking you to sort out this situation.”
This appeal, which appeared this month on Russian Telegram channels, was just one in a flood of new videos that have surfaced since mid-February, in which recent Russian conscripts have complained about how they are being sent to fight and die on the front lines in Ukraine, using phrases such as “criminal orders” and “senseless assaults.”
One Russian media outlet, Vyorstka, calculated that in one month, recruits from at least 16 regions across Russia have appeared in videos appealing for Putin’s intervention.
Scores of conscripts say they are being forced to storm Ukrainian positions as part of Russia’s eastern offensive, without sufficient training, ammunition or weapons. The Washington Post was unable to independently verify the videos, some of which were sent to local Russian media outlets by conscripts or their families.
The flurry of videos signals that the problems that plagued Russia’s invasion throughout its first year are far from resolved, and they offer further evidence that Moscow is relying on a grim tactic of sending waves of soldiers to certain death to soften up Ukrainian positions, ahead of sending in elite, experienced fighters to then gain ground.
The tactic is even drawing criticism from pro-Russian war bloggers who question its effectiveness and the pointless loss of life in what they call “meat assaults.” Recruits have complained of being handed guns and told to run at enemy positions and shoot. In one video, recorded on March 7, conscripts in a unit from Irkutsk, a city in Siberia, complained that they were “being sent to the slaughter.” The video was their third public appeal to Putin.
While the strategy of sending waves of so-called “shock troops” is not new, it seems to have become more prevalent as Russia has lost some of its initial artillery advantage. The strategy has been a hallmark of the Wagner mercenary group’s months-long assault on Bakhmut.
U.S. officials estimate that the Wagner group alone has lost 30,000 fighters since the start of the invasion, with thousands killed in action in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Russia’s defense ministry claimed last September that just 5,937 soldiers had been killed in the conflict so far. Western governments project about 200,000 killed and wounded on the Russian side.
One group of recruits from Kaliningrad, Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, claiming to be to be Unit 41698 of the 5th Motorized Brigade, said that in their first assault six members of the unit had died in a single trench.
“People die for nothing,” said one man, his face covered by a balaclava. “We are not meat. We are ready to fight with dignity, not as meat, in frontal attacks.”
Another video, apparently recorded by Regiment 1453 from Perm and the Yekaterinburg region in the Urals on March 11, spoke of “unjustified losses” and said that during a recent assault four had died and 18 were wounded.
The videos have also highlighted Moscow’s failure to address critical and embarrassing supply problems, which have led to arming soldiers with World War II-era guns and uniforms. Some of those complaints were first raised last autumn, including in an initial wave of videos, which began appearing shortly after Russia began a partial military conscription.
Russian officials have remained noticeably mute about the recent videos, and so far there is no sign that Putin will respond to the appeals. In November, during a staged meeting with of group of women described as soldiers’ mothers, Putin revealed some concern over how the mobilization and the war were being perceived and he seemed to allude to the first wave of videos.
“One should not trust the internet completely because it is full of various fake stories, deception and lies,” Putin said. “The internet is rife with information attacks because information is just another offensive weapon in the modern world, and information attacks are just another effective type of struggle.”
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in New York, said that it was unsurprising to see such problems after a year of war for which Russia was ill-prepared, and especially after the steep casualties of recent months.
“These recruits are serving involuntarily. They are not being trained properly and do not have the right equipment. Russia is clearly using its scarce sources to arm and equip its best units,” Lee said in a phone interview.
“The quality of the force is worse now,” Lee said. “Earlier in the war, the big difference was that Russia had a really substantial artillery advantage, which compensated for a lack of tactical competence in some units. Now that artillery advantage has been reduced.”
The conscripts’ appeals have been echoed by mothers and daughters of mobilized fighters who have recorded their own messages to Putin. In one video, published on March 12, about 20 women appealed to Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to remove their men from the firing line.
“Our men are sent in as meat to storm well-defended points, five people against 100 well-armed enemies,” one woman said. “They are ready to honor their duty to the motherland according to the specialization they trained for, not as assault infantry.”
None of the videos represent any kind of protest of the war. Not a single conscript or unit openly condemned the war, which the Kremlin still insists on referring to as a “special military operation.”
And in most of the videos, the recruits are careful to say that they are committed to military duty and want to continue fighting for their country. Most recruits have also taken steps to hide their identities — a sign of their concern that any complaint may run afoul of the Kremlin’s draconian wartime censorship laws, including harsh jail sentences for “discrediting the military.”
Last summer, there were also cases of Russian “refuseniks” being jailed in makeshift prisons in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine and being subjected to violence and abuse.
Conscripts began posting appeal videos last autumn, following an unpopular and sudden mobilization drive, that rapidly called up at least 300,000 new soldiers to plug the gaps resulting from a string of battlefield losses.
The videos released in this month’s wave bear many similarities to the initial appeals, including complaints of absent commanders and unclear orders, poor communications, lack of equipment and unnecessary casualties.
The complaints have also been echoed by Russia’s war bloggers, some of the more vocal critics of the direction of Putin’s war and the ineptitude of the military command. Analysts said that the new complaints about being deployed as untrained stormtroopers could indicate some failure in Russia’s efforts to train thousands of soldiers over the winter.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.