Five Russian soldiers sit in a brick building. They are blindfolded: the latest prisoners to be captured inside Ukraine. A Ukrainian voice interrogates them. “Speak,” he says to the group’s Russian officer. What message would he like to send to his soldiers and to Russians back at home?
“Frankly speaking, they tricked us,” the officer replies, referring to his military superiors sitting in Moscow. “Everything we were told was a fake. I would tell my guys to leave Ukrainian territory. We’ve got families and children. I think 90% of us would agree to go home.”
The three-minute video was filmed under conditions of duress. The soldiers are evidently scared. And yet there are numerous similar interviews with Russian captives which have been circulating on Ukrainian social media channels, expressing similar sentiments.
Asked what he would tell his commanders, one said bluntly: “They are faggots”. Another phrase frequently used is oni obmanuli nas: they duped us. Eight days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion it is clear that a significant number of his servicemen are demoralised and reluctant to fight. Some have given themselves up.
Others have abandoned their vehicles and have set off back towards the Russian border on foot, lugging their weapons and kitbags, videos suggest. These episodes do not mean that the Kremlin will fail in its attempts to conquer Ukraine, as its tactics shift to brutal shelling of civilians.
But low morale among invading troops might be one reason why Russia’s blitzkrieg plan to overwhelm Ukraine appears not to have progressed at the speed Putin would have wanted. The assumption in Moscow was that the operation would be swift and successful. Soldiers were given food and fuel supplies for only two or three days, the videos suggest.
The Kremlin also appears to have had a totally fantastical idea of the reception they would get. Several prisoners of war said they had been assured Ukrainians would welcome them as liberators. Russian forces were expecting flowers and cheers, not bullets and bombs, they said.
“Some of them thought they were on military exercises. They didn’t anticipate resistance,” Artem Mazhulin, a 31-year-old English teacher from Kharkiv said. “A lot are conscripts born in 2002 or 2003. We are talking about 19-year-old and 20-year-old boys.”
He added: “Since 2014 the Russian government has been brainwashing its population with propaganda. They try and make Russia believe Ukraine is not a real country and say fascist monsters have captured it.”
Mazhulin said his uncle and aunt, Viktor and Valentina, had talked with Russian soldiers when they rolled past their house in Kupiansk, in north-east Ukraine, close to the border. The soldiers explained they were looking for Banderivtsi, or followers of the second world war Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
“My uncle said to them: ‘Where the fuck do you see Banderivtsi?’ My aunt told them to get off her flowerbeds,” Mazhulin recounted. “They called my uncle Batya (Dad) and chatted with him about pigeon breeding, his hobby. Then they drove off on their tank.”
In a video address on Thursday Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelesksiy pressed home the same message: that Putin has sent his invading forces into Ukraine without an understandable mission. “They are demoralised. They are doomed,” he said, telling enemy soldiers to “go home”.
Ukraine claims to have killed several thousand Russian troops. This figure may be an exaggeration, but on Wednesday, however, even the Kremlin admitted 498 of its servicemen had died, with 1,591 wounded.
Alex Kovzhun, a one-time adviser to Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said Russian soldiers could be divided into two sorts: “There are the young conscripts who are scared shitless. And there are career guys who have fought in Syria and the Donbas.”
Kovzhun said the Russian general staff had thought the invasion would be “easy peasy”, and a repeat of the operations to seize Crimea in 2014, or their recent deployment to Kazakhstan, which were largely unopposed. Instead, Ukrainian civilians had stood in front of enemy tanks, blocked armoured columns with their bare hands and had sung the national anthem in front of twitchy Russian guards.
“They shout expletives in front of armed people. I’ve seen the Russian faces. They are very uncomfortable because it’s not what they expected. They were told Ukrainians were imprisoned by mythic Nazis,” he added.
Nick Reynolds, a research analyst for land warfare at the defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said the Ukrainian figure for killed enemy soldiers was likely to be a more reliable than the Russian estimate, adding that the footage of engagements involving Russian forces available online suggested the toll the Kremlin was willing to admit to had already been exceeded.
Nevertheless, he added, there is little to show how the Ukrainian authorities have arrived at their own total. The several thousand dead tally could itself be a slight exaggeration, he said.
There is no doubt Ukraine is utilising the discomfort of captured soldiers for propaganda purposes. Several videos show young men calling their mothers back in Russia, who have no idea their sons are fighting in Ukraine. The mothers typically break down. The Ukrainian authorities have opened a hotline for worried Russian relatives, in another PR scoop.
Nonetheless, there is an authentic sense that many Russian servicemen regret ever having come to Ukraine, a journey that has ended for some in death or disillusionment. One interrogator asks a prisoner: “So, what do you think, are you soldiers of the strong Russian army or cannon fodder?”
“We are cannon fodder,” the PoW replies.
“Was it worth it?” the interrogator says, by way of follow-up.
“No,” the prisoner says.
Additional reporting by Kevin Rawlinson