‘My son has died’: Russia mourns loss of first drafted soldiers in Ukraine

As newly mobilised men return from the front in coffins, critics complain of aggressive recruiting, low morale and poor training

Russia-Ukraine war latest – live blog

Andrei Nikiforov, a lawyer from St Petersburg, was one of the hundreds of thousands of Russians mobilised since last month to hold the frontlines in his country’s faltering war in Ukraine.

On 25 September he received his call-up papers. By 7 October, just two weeks later, he was dead.

“We don’t know what happened,” said Alexander Zelensky, the head of the Nevsky Collegium of Lawyers, of which Nikiforov was a member. Zelensky and a member of Nikiforov’s family confirmed his call-up and death. “All we have is a date and a place.”

That place was Lysychansk, one of the most dangerous spots near the frontlines.

The first coffins are now returning to Russia from Ukraine, bringing the remains of ordinary Russians who at first were promised a quick “special military operation” and now have been drafted to go and fight in a war. Their deaths may mark another inflection point for Russia in this conflict, where mismanagement has led to Kremlin infighting and at least half a million men have been drafted or fled their homes to avoid it.

The newly minted soldiers died within weeks of Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation announcement on 21 September. On Thursday, the Chelyabinsk region announced the deaths of five mobilised soldiers from a single military commissariat. Reports on Saturday said that another four had died from the Krasnoyarsk region alone. Family members of some men who died said they had been promised two months of training before they would be sent to the frontlines.

A drafted reservist says goodbye at a recruiting station in St Petersburg, 27 September 2022.
A drafted reservist says goodbye at a recruiting station in St Petersburg. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

According to BBC Russian, another 14 have died, even before reaching the front, of causes including suicide, heart attacks, in fights and other mysterious ailments.

Nikiforov, by contrast, played the role asked of him by the Kremlin: loyal, willing and able. A military veteran who had served in Chechnya, he wasn’t surprised to be called up.

“He didn’t hesitate,” said Zelensky, adding that military recruiters had delivered his call-up papers to his home. “He didn’t try to get out of his service. He gathered his things together and went. He acted bravely.”

Yet deaths happening so quickly, some just days after men have been called into service, have caused anger at home.

Alexei Martynov, a 28-year-old employee of the Moscow government, was mobilised on 23 September, his father said. His death was confirmed on 10 October. “My son has died, what am I for?” he wrote in a post on 13 October. “We don’t know anything more than what was put on the internet,” he told the Observer.

Old photographs from Victory Day in 2016 showed Martynov in army uniform, two months after completing his mandatory service. According to Natalya Loseva, the deputy editorial director of the RT television channel, he had served in the Semyonovsky regiment, whose main activities are ceremonial.

“He had no combat experience,” Loseva wrote in an angry post last week that made Martynov the highest-profile death yet from the wave of mobilisation. “He was sent to the front within just a few days. He died heroically on 10 October.”

Roman Super, a Russian journalist who has reported on anger among state employees, said that Martynov’s death had led to a backlash among the educated cadres of city workers.

“Military leaders, now is not the time to lie,” wrote Loseva. “You have no right to lie and now it is a crime.”

Anger at Russia’s military leadership had led to considerable infighting in the Russian government, with an insurgency led by Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov and the Wagner private military company founder Yevgeny Prigozhin calling out individual commanders by name for their failure to halt the Ukrainian advance.

Russian conscripts training in the Rostov-on-Don region of southern Russia, 4 October 2022.
Russian conscripts undergo training in the Rostov-on-Don region of southern Russia, 4 October 2022. Photograph: Arkady Budnitsky/EPA

Now, with the impact of mobilisation beginning to be felt on the home front, Putin has been forced to defend the process, telling Russians the call-ups are likely to conclude in two weeks and he will order an inquiry into violations of draft procedures.

“The line of contact is 1,100km, so it is almost impossible to hold it exclusively with troops formed from contractors,” said Putin. “This is the reason for mobilisation.”

At a press conference in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana on Friday, he said that 16,000 mobilised troops were already fighting in Ukraine, and that 222,000 Russians had already been called up.

He said that mobilised Russians would receive basic training of five to 10 days and then unit training of five to 15 days. Then combat training would continue, he claimed.

Yet some of the deaths clearly show that men have been shipped off to war far more quickly than that. Several Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainians claimed that they had received almost no training whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Russian draft officers are becoming far more aggressive. The Observer has spoken with the relative of a man in Moscow who was detained on city streets and summarily served call-up papers. In another case, an IT worker complained that his exemption from the draft was ignored and that he wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to his wife and four-month-old daughter before being sent for basic training.

Russia’s mobilisation drive has been plagued by reports of neglect, unexplained deaths and suicides. On Friday, the body of a Russian military draft officer was found hanging on a fence in the far-east town of Partizansk.

Some of the deaths at Russia’s mobilisation centres have also indicated severe issues with morale. During training, one man at a military base near St Petersburg fatally shot himself. Another in Siberia reportedly cut his own throat in a mess hall.

The pro-government Telegram channel Mash reported on Friday that the internet censors were now investigating the pro-war bloggers and reporters who have criticised Russia’s shambolic mobilisation. The channel claimed the cases were provoked by the defence ministry.

Margarita Simonyan, the RT head who has led pro-Kremlin critics of the mistakes made during mobilisation, wrote in their defence: “According to my data, the authorities who make decisions have no issues with them.”


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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