From the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Ukraine has proven a worthy opponent in the fight for minds. Ukraine’s narrative has prevailed. Russia has virtually no country taking its side. Even China’s support is questionable after Putin presumably lied to Xi Jinping that he would not invade.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has not fled to safety, and the strong resistance against Russia’s invasion from three sides has won Ukraine global admiration and support. Germany has executed a historic about-face from business as usual with Russia to become Europe’s de-facto leader against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
There is but one deviation from Ukraine’s public relations victory: The Russian population has swallowed Putin’s fable that Russia is threatened by an aggressive Ukraine and NATO, poised to invade unless Russia hits first.
But Ukraine is not satisfied to cede Russian public opinion to the Kremlin. Instead, they are going after the weakest point in his narrative; namely, that Ukraine will collapse when confronted with Russian “special operations.”
Putin’s weakest argument to his own people lies in that very last term. He implicitly promised Russians an antiseptic operation that would return Ukraine to the Russian fold where it belongs. Ukraine, with its fierce resistance, has dispelled Putin’s claim of victory without casualties.
During the 2014 war against Donbas separatists, Putin ordered casualties to be strictly hidden via hidden burials and intimidation of families of fallen soldiers. According to the official line, there were no casualties, other than the few accidents that are bound to happen.
To combat this “no-casualties” narrative now, Ukraine’s interior ministry has just opened a website: Ischi svoikh – Search for your own. The service is directed at Russian families of soldiers possibly in Ukraine. The website is https://200rf.com. The 200 refers to the notorious “Cargo200” refrigerated trucks that transported the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in Donbas in 2014 back to Russia for burial.
Ischi svoikh announces that “at the present time, 4312 persons killed. From these, 1169 cannot be identified. There are 768 in captivity. This information will be regularly updated.” There is no independent confirmation of these numbers, but they are shocking even if we divide them by ten.
The portal directs readers to a website where they can fill out their personal data along with information about the young men feared dead or captive inside Ukraine. Such information potentially gives Ukraine a database of parents and relatives of young soldiers to whom Ukraine could deliver its message.
Ischi svoikh has begun to release the photo IDs of Russian soldiers killed on the battlefield. The first posting listed 15 persons, with more to be added regularly. If skeptics wish to check whether these soldiers are really dead, the documents give names, addresses, and responsible persons. Phone their families and see what you learn.
As the war began, the Kremlin tried to follow its 2014 script of hiding combat deaths. Russia’s Ministry of Defense has described military operations but has issued not a word on casualties. Then came a reluctant concession, which suggests massive casualties: Russia's army admitted Sunday that there were "killed and injured" soldiers among its troops in Ukraine, without saying how many. A Moscow army spokesman said on state television. "Unfortunately, there are killed and injured among our comrades. The spokesman went on hollowly to “praise their courage and heroism.”
Another indicator of unexpectedly high casualties is the Ministry of Health’s letter warning of a “major medical event” requiring doctors to be drafted from across the country. They are warned to “be ready.” Putin clearly did not expect such a level of resistance and losses. Their blitzkrieg should have finished Ukraine by now. Quite a surprise!
In another twist designed to prevent Putin from again concealing casualties, Ukraine has called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to perform the humanitarian work of returning soldiers’ remains to Russia. Ukraine notes that “the ICRC can act as a neutral intermediary on the return of bodies and other humanitarian issues in the conflict, including missing persons and reuniting families.”
Looming as another problem for Putin are the Societies of Russian Mothers of Soldiers. Their major complaint so far is that their conscripted sons are supposed to be exempt from service in combat areas unless they give their own consent. The mothers complain that their conscripted sons are taken to the Ukrainian border, forced to sign contracts making them regular soldiers to be put into battle with little or no training.
A final grassroots source of information about casualties in Ukraine: The Russian Orthodox churches read out the names of departing souls on special days in the church calendar. Parishioners attending such services are beginning to hear the names of draft-age young men. They clearly understand what is going on.
Ukraine learned valuable lessons from the first Russo-Ukrainian War of 2014. They learned the importance of winning hearts and minds, not only of allies but also of enemies. Putin’s mainstay has been his ability to convince the Russian people of his “fortress Russia” view that the West wants to wipe Russia and its enlightened leadership off the map. Their reward for going along with this narrative is a “Great Russia” respected on the world stage given them by Vladimir Putin at no cost. Nothing else can explain why the Russian people are willing to go along with the first European war since 1945. But will they hold to the Kremlin’s myths when they realize they are citizens of an outlaw country condemned by just about the whole world?
Paul Gregory is Cullen Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Houston and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is also a Research Fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research Berlin. He writes on Russia, Ukraine, and comparative economics. The views expressed are the author's own.