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Russians face mounting casualties and costs of war in Ukraine

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“Mom this is hell, I don’t know if I will come home,” Nikita Avrov, a 20-year-old Russian soldier, wrote in a text message to his mother on February 14 as he and more than 150 Another 000 troops massed along the Russian-Ukrainian border ahead of Moscow’s invasion.

This was the last time Anastasia Avrova, his mother, heard from her son until she learned on April 2 from local authorities that Nikita had been killed along with the rest of his tank crew in late March near of Izyum, the scene of intense fighting in eastern Ukraine.

An indentured soldier from Luga, a town near St. Petersburg, Nikita’s obituary is one of many now filtering across Russia as news about the harsh reality of the six-week war in Moscow in Ukraine are beginning to hit ordinary families.

“Nothing Adds Up In My Head”, Avrova says North of RFE/RL. Realitieswho says she was told to expect the arrival of her son’s body in the next few days.

Many ordinary Russians are still unaware of the extent of their military casualties in Ukraine – and the brutal tactics they have used against civilians – since the February 24 invasion.

Russian authorities tightly control information on military casualties inside the country. Precise public sentiment for the war is not known, but official polls show high support for the Kremlin campaign. Still, the government remains wary of how reports of army casualties could shift public opinion and create backlash at home.

Avrova says it’s still hard for her to discuss Nikita’s death and she still wonders if she considers the war necessary or not, although she thinks “if it wasn’t necessary, she wouldn’t. probably wouldn’t exist.”

Yet, she adds, it is becoming difficult for her as news regularly comes in of young men like her son being killed fighting in Ukraine.

“I worry about every child like it’s my own when I see on the internet someone has died,” she said.

An information breakdown

The Kremlin has cracked down on the flow of information, targeting and banning many independent media outlets and human rights organizations, while Russian state media echo false claims that the Ukrainian government is controlled by the Nazis and that the brutal deaths of Ukrainian civilians, such as those of Bucha, are part of an elaborate hoax.

Russian media coverage and public debate about the war are also subject to strict censorship. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order declaring all military deaths a state secret in 2015 and the country criminalized statements discrediting the military in 2022.

Ilgiz Akhiyarov, from the Russian region of Bashkortostan whose brother Ilfat was killed fighting in Ukraine, works in the oil industry in Siberia and says that due to long working hours and poor internet connection on his workplace, he only “realized there was a war in Ukraine when my brother was killed there.”

Ilgiz told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service that because his family and many others in his native area are Muslim, many bodies of fallen soldiers are returned quickly in order to comply with Islamic burial customs which dictate that someone should be buried as soon as possible afterwards time of death.

Ifat Akhiyarov was killed fighting in Ukraine and buried on April 3.

Ilfat was buried on April 3 in his home village of Durtyuli, north of the city of Ufa, and Ilgiz says the sight of his brother in a zinc coffin made him physically ill. He says he thought the war was something far removed from him and his family and he worries about more casualties in Ukraine.

Like many Russians, Ilgiz says he gets his news from public TV channels and doesn’t have time to browse the internet or messaging platforms like Telegram to do his own research.

“You have to finish what you started,” Ilgiz said of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. “So why did my brother and others die? It’s not right to stop halfway.”

A new phase for a brutal war

After suffering heavy losses in northern Ukraine and around Kyiv, Moscow is reorienting its forces towards southern and eastern Ukraine. With more intense fighting expected, continued grim casualties could have a big effect on support for the war across the country.

While estimates point to a staggering Russian death toll, an exact figure remains elusive.

The Russian Defense Ministry said 1,351 soldiers have died in the fighting so far, while NATO estimates that Russia has lost between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers during the war. Ukraine puts the Russian death toll at 18,600.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has created a website and a Telegram channel where Russians can search for photos of the dead and POWs, or fill out an online form for information about their family members.

However, there is no guarantee that such moves could undermine support or break the strong information controls that are in place inside Russia.

“Does everyone [in Ukraine] a Nazi? No, not all of them, but they are part of the management,” Ilgiz said. [Ukrainian] regime must be destroyed so that [ordinary people] don’t take more damage.”