Yesterday, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, took to the podium to read a text conversation between an unnamed Russian soldier and his mother. In the span of just a few sentences, the dialogue captures the young man’s mounting fear and loathing of fighting in Ukraine, as well as his mother’s sheer ignorance to the danger he is in.
“Why has it been so long since you responded? Are you really in training lessons?” she asks in Russian.
“Mama, I am no longer in Crimea. I am not in training sessions,” he replies.
They go back and forth as she asks where he is, and whether his father can send him a package in the mail. He wonders what kind of mail it could be, then abruptly notes his real mood: “I just want to hang myself now.”
“What are you talking about? What happened?” she probes.
“Mama, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I am afraid. We are bombing all of the cities, together. Even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us, and they are falling under our armored vehicles, throwing them under the wheels and not allowing us to pass,” he writes. “They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.”
The texts were purportedly read off of a phone taken from a dead body, punctuating the fragility of the communication that Russian soldiers have with their loved ones — and how badly some just want to go home. Almost every day, there’s another viral video of Russian fighters crying on calls to their mothers or otherwise admitting they don’t really want to be in Ukraine. Predictably, Ukrainian officials are using these moments of candid honesty from Russian fighters as a damning statement against President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, painting a narrative of young men being sent to the slaughter for an unjust invasion.
But beyond just being used as pro-Ukrainian propaganda, these stories depict a truth about the chaos of war and why we continue to send confused young men to the front lines. Turns out, nobody wants to die as the bad guy — and it’s telling that, when confronted by angry civilians who are ready to die for their home, many Russian soldiers don’t have the heart to fight back. Instead, they’re forced to reflect on why they feel like a pawn in an unjust invasion, isolated, lonely and sometimes literally lost.
This is especially true for those soldiers taken as prisoners of war by Ukrainian soldiers (and sometimes civilians). In one recent video shared widely on Reddit, we witness a young man in Russian fatigues, appearing on the verge of a panic attack as angry voices rain questions on him. It’s unclear why he was captured alone, but the hands on his head and his cowering posture betray the sheer regret of ending up hundreds of miles from home.
It’s not a surprise that, for many Russian soldiers captured during the invasion, the only thing they want is to call their mothers. In one typical video released by Ukranian state television, we see another young soldier in a holding room, calling his family on a cell phone: “Please, don’t worry about me. You have to contact my unit… Say to them that I’ve been taken captive in Ukraine. When they sent us here, they said it was going to be a peacekeeping mission in the [contested Donetsk People’s Republic]. But in fact, we broke out the war… I mean, we acted as the aggressor,” he says (via translation). “We’re bombing cities, Mom.”
In a subsequent segment, a Russian man tells the camera that he was called up by the military for two weeks of training, then told that he was going to “guard the border.” “But then suddenly, at night, we crossed the border … we had no choice. If we had declined the order, we would have been sentenced, after returning home, to 15-20 years of imprisonment,” he says according to a translator. “I want to say to my mom, ‘Wait for me. I will return.’”
Elsewhere, a Russian POW on his knees speaks openly about the lack of support within the ranks for a full-on war with Ukraine: “No one wanted to go. But they said: ‘You will be enemies of the people. And since this is wartime, you can be shot.’ And they began using us like cannon fodder, though all the people, at least from our unit, do not want war,” the man says to the camera. “They just want to go home. They just want peace.”
Russia has stayed effectively silent on how many of its men have died in the invasion, while Ukraine currently claims that it has killed more than 5,000 Russian combatants, a number that remains unverified. But Ukrainian officials are using the defections, killing and capture of Russian fighters as a powerful form of propaganda, urging other soldiers and citizens of Russia to turn public favor against Putin’s war.
One of the most blunt instruments in this media battle is the launching of a Ukrainian website dubbed 200rf.com, designed as a database for Russians to identify killed or captured young men, as many are left wondering where their loved ones actually are. They’ve even set up a telephone hotline for people trying to find their children and siblings on the war front, as well as a Telegram channel dubbed “Find Your Own” that serves as a rolling list of Russian soldiers who are exhausted and want to go home.
The viral videos of Russian soldiers who don’t want to fight will not turn the tide of Russia’s aggression; currently, the siege of Kyiv is escalating as armored forces and foot soldiers pour into the capitol. It’s also possible that a tearful moment from a captured fighter is just manipulated messaging forced on them under incarceration, rather than honest insight into the minds of these young Russian men.
But even if these moments aren’t as organic as they’re presented, collectively it becomes a powerful window into the psychology and mood on the frontline. It’s clear that many are ill-prepared to march into a world where everyone looks (and shoots) at you with anger and disbelief. These young men are left to contend with violent orders and existential doubt, while hoping they can find a way out.
Putin wants to enter what will certainly be a long, bloody, ugly war that poisons geopolitical relationships in Eastern Europe for generations to come. In doing so, the Russian government is forcing young men to confront a reality they were never trained for: A battle they don’t believe in, far from the loved ones who can give them any comfort at all. No wonder they don’t want to fight anymore.