This week, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, read to the General Assembly what he said were text messages that a Russian soldier sent to his mother moments before he was be killed. They were obtained, he said, by Ukrainian forces after the soldier was killed.
“Mom, I am in Ukraine,” the ambassador read. “There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We bomb all the towns together, even targeting civilians. We were told that they were going to welcome us and they fall under our armored vehicles, throw themselves under the wheels and do not allow us to pass. They call us fascists. Mom, it’s so hard.
The messages – read under the global spotlight of a high-level United Nations meeting – offered a poignant reminder of the human cost of war. They also served as a powerful example of the centrality of the battle for public opinion around the world in an unbalanced war between the Russian military machine and a disjointed and increasingly armed Ukraine.
The efforts of both sides to influence the narrative and perception of the war are striking.
Ukrainian officials are using reports and social media images of Russian casualties to try to undermine the morale of the invading forces. President Vladimir V. Putin, meanwhile, has described President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as “a bunch of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And at least some Russian soldiers seem to have absorbed disinformation from the Kremlin that their invasion would be welcome.
The Ukrainian military, interior ministry and UN ambassador did not respond to requests for additional information to help verify the authenticity of the messages read at the United Nations.
Whatever their origins, the messages allude to an undeniable theme of the war: the fierce resistance of Ukrainian forces denied Mr Putin the quick and easy victory that Russia seems to have anticipated, while some of the young military forces Russians were poorly prepared for battle. and shaken by bad morale.
On Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official said entire Russian units laid down their arms without a fight after clashing with surprisingly tough Ukrainian defenders. In some cases, Russian troops drilled holes in the fuel tanks of their vehicles, presumably to avoid combat, the official said.
The decision to read the text messages, Russian experts and Pentagon officials said, was also a not-so-veiled reminder to Mr. Putin of the role Russian mothers played in drawing attention to military casualties the government tried to keep secret.
In fact, a group now called the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia played a pivotal role in opening up the military to public scrutiny and influencing the perception of military service, wrote Julie Elkner, a Russian historian, in The Journal of Power. Institutions in post-Soviet societies.
For Mr Putin, the growing death toll on the Russian side could undermine domestic support for his Ukrainian incursion. Russian memories are long – and soldiers’ mothers, in particular, US officials say, could easily recall the 15,000 soldiers killed when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan, or the thousands killed in Chechnya.
Mr Putin tried to counter assessments by Western officials that Russia was facing greater resistance than expected. But on Thursday he acknowledged there had been losses, promising the families of the victims a special payout of 5 million rubles, or nearly $50,000.