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Angry families say Russian conscripts were thrown to the front lines unprepared

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The husband of Irina Sokolova, a Russian soldier mobilized to fight in Ukraine, called her from a forest there last month, sobbing, almost broken.

“They lie on television,” he cried, referring to state television propagandists who play down Russian failures and portray a deadly war for Russia’s survival against the United States and its allies.

Sokolova, 37, also cried for him and for their nearly one-year-old son, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Voronezh, western Russia.

Sokolova is one of dozens of soldiers’ wives and other family members expressing remarkably public — and risky — anger and fear over the appalling conditions faced by new conscripts on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The soldiers’ relatives, mostly people who would normally stay out of politics, arouse the Kremlin’s wrath by posting videos online and in Russian independent media outlets, and even speaking to foreign journalists. They say mobilized soldiers went into battle with little training, poor equipment, and often without clear orders. Many are exhausted and confused, according to their families. Some wander lost through the woods for days on end. Others refuse to fight.

“Of course he had no idea how horrible it would be there,” Sokolova told The Washington Post. “We look at our federal TV stations and they say everything is perfect.”

The relatives don’t usually criticize President Vladimir Putin or even the war, but their videos have exposed the low of many conscripts’ morale as Russia tries to recover from its recent losses by reportedly throwing in 318,000 reinforcements.

Yana, a transport worker from St. Petersburg, was a staunch pro-war patriot until her partner was mobilized.

In a telephone interview, Yana confirmed video reports from other military spouses that the men had to buy their own warm uniforms and boots and had little training. In Ukraine they were not given any food or drink.

“They have no orders and they have no duties,” she said. “I spoke to my husband yesterday and he said they have no idea what to do. They have just been abandoned and they have lost all faith, all faith in the authorities.”

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In the videos, wives recite lists of grievances in trembling voices, like frightened villagers who begged a petition to the Tsar in the days of the Russian Empire. Conscripts pose in body armor that barely covers their ribs, or film themselves in Ukrainian forests, listing their dead and complaining that their officers are nowhere to be seen.

Details in the videos could not be independently verified, but they are consistent with accounts family members provided in interviews with The Post, and with reports from independent Russian media outlets, such as ASTRA, which exposed seven basement prisons for deserters in Luhansk last week.

Sokolova’s husband was mobilized on September 22 to fight in the 252nd Motorized Rifle Regiment. He told her he had no military training “and on September 26 he was already in Ukraine,” she said.

He called late last month, after barely surviving a major battle when his unit was surrounded and many killed. He and two others escaped without their backpacks and warm gear, but got lost and ended up in a forest.

‘They have been thrown into the fire, so to speak, in the very first front line, but they are not soldiers. They don’t know how to fight. They can’t do this,” Sokolova said, adding that her husband was in severe pain with pancreatitis. “I feel how terrible it is for him there,” she said. “My heart is 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 town in the Luhansk region, on their first day in Ukraine and were given one kick between 30 men to clear trenches. to dig. In a joint video call first sent to independent Russian media Vyorstka, they said the commanders “walked away”, forcing the men to endure three days of heavy shelling.

Several dozen mobilized soldiers from the regiment walked about 100 miles to Milove, on the Russian border, demanding to return to their base near Voronezh, according to their video report on Nov. 3.

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They were briefly taken to nearby Valuyki in Russia, but their request was ignored. “We wrote applications. We wrote reports. We’ve done everything, but no one listens to us. Nobody wants to hear us,” said a soldier, Konstantin Voropayev, in the video, also asking for legal help.

Sokolova’s husband called her in a panic the same day from Valuyki and said that he and others were sent straight back into battle.

On October 28, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that early problems in equipping and training mobilized soldiers had been resolved.

Military analyst Konrad Muzyka, of Poland-based Rochen Consulting, wrote in a recent analysis that despite the “bottomless morale” of conscripts, the sheer number of them could help Russia on the battlefield.

As the videos spread, Russian authorities seem to be losing their temper. A mobilized soldier, Alexander Leshkov, faces up to 15 years in prison, his lawyer, Henri Tsiskarishvili, said after berating, pushing and nagging an officer in a video about the unit’s low-grade body armor.

“This is a desecration, 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, married 43 other couples just before the men were sent to war. The Post agreed not to use her full name to protect 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’re so used to believing what we’re told.”

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But after her husband was called up, she gave away the television because it made her “aggressive.” She said she fears for her husband’s life, but said she doesn’t blame Putin, “because he is a smart person.”

“We are absolutely confused, at our wits end and we feel let down,” she said. “We cry from morning to night.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Kremlin’s propaganda works — for now — with the video protests that aren’t directed against Putin, or even the war.

“Putin wants people to share the responsibility for the war with him,” Kolesnikov said. “He wants their bodies and lives sacrificed on the altar of the fight against NATO, the West and global evil. This strategy of glorifying cannon fodder and hero of death is risky in a more or less modernized society that was not ready to get physically involved in the trenches.”

After repeated military setbacks and high casualties, support for the war wanes. The independent Levada Center poll reported on Nov. 1 that 57 percent of Russians want peace talks, while 36 percent want to keep fighting.

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Sokolova said the relatives of mobilized men “understand what is going on, but people whose relatives have not been mobilized see the world through rose-colored glasses. They have no idea what is going on and they are not interested.”

Yana told her son that his father is a superhero who fights against evil. The fairy tale corresponds to Russia’s imperialist propaganda, but deep down it doesn’t ring true. In her heart, Yana said that she is terrified that her husband will never call again and her son will grow up without a father.

“I’m just an ordinary woman and I want to live in peace,” she said. “That’s all I want.”

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