Ukrainians understand that the only group capable of stopping Putin’s war machine is the Russian people. Putin understands it too, which is why he’ll do whatever possible to hide the human cost of the conflict. A key battle in the information war between the two sides is whether Ukraine can break through Putin’s firewall and galvanize Russians into resisting.
One obvious move is to appeal to their emotions by circulating images online of the damage Putin has done to Ukraine, but that may be easier said than done. Even if those images are accessible inside Russia, Ukraine may discover to its horror that Russians don’t care about their “brothers” across the border as much as we assumed.
But they do care about their children. That’s the other obvious move, broadcasting the fact that Ukraine has information on Russian POWs and is happy to provide it to worried parents back in Russia. Shrewdly, the Ukrainian government has already set up online channels for Russian parents to search for updates on their sons’ status, knowing that news of combat deaths or captivity will ripple through the Russian population via word of mouth. Today they took that campaign a step further, offering to release Russian prisoners of war — if their mothers will travel to Kiev to retrieve them.
According to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense Facebook page, Russian prisoners-of-war will be released to their mothers if the women personally travel to Kyiv for the reunification.
Given Russia’s invasion, the process laid-out by the Ukrainians is multifaceted. First, Russian mothers are directed to a Telegram channel or dedicated phone lines to confirm their sons are actually in Ukrainian custody. Then, the Russian women are asked to travel to Kaliningrad, Russia or Minsk, Belarus where they will need to take a bus or taxi to the Polish border.
From there, mothers should locate any border checkpoint with Ukraine, where they will be escorted into Kyiv and the Russian soldiers will be handed over.
That’s a clever way to jumpstart the word-of-mouth campaign while generating Russian eyewitnesses to the damage done to Kiev. Presumably the Russian military will also be more reluctant to attack the city if the public has reason to believe that Russian women are inside, there to save their boys.
But we shouldn’t presume too much about what Putin is and isn’t willing to do with innocents in the crosshairs. He took a dim view of human shields when he started babbling again about Nazis this morning:
Putin speaking to his security council.
“I will never abandon my conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people […] but the way the battle is going shows we are fighting neo-Nazis.”
He claims Ukraine is using civilians and foreigners as “human shields.” pic.twitter.com/spgZV9U1MC
— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 3, 2022
Here’s graphic footage from one recent Russian attack that apparently targeted civilians:
33 people killed in a missile strike in Chernihiv, just hours ago.
Why is everyone in the West pretending not seeing these horrors?! pic.twitter.com/8xiB29Nstx
— Inna Sovsun (@InnaSovsun) March 3, 2022
This isn’t graphic but it’s an even clearer example of civilians being slaughtered en masse for no discernible purpose:
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) March 3, 2022
If any Russian mothers do show up in Kiev, the juxtaposition of Ukraine treating their boys humanely by sending them home while Putin sends them abroad to die would be another PR coup. Particularly considering that some Russian conscripts reportedly had no idea they were being sent to war:
Russia has mandatory year-long military service for all men under age 27, and Russian regulations say conscripts can be sent to a combat zone no earlier than four months into their training. But the soldiers’ mothers group says it has received a barrage of calls from Russian parents saying some conscripts were coerced or misled into signing up for service, or that they had barely served two months before being sent unprepared onto the battlefield.
Some conscripts told their mothers, according to Kurochkin, that they believed they were heading toward the Ukrainian border for drills, which is how Russia for weeks explained its massive buildup.
“Then they are being told: ‘Now you are contractors’,” he said. “And everyone’s phones are being taken away, while moms are crying and in panic.”
Unprepared and force to fight anyway: No wonder the invasion has been a logistical fiasco. Ill treatment of soldiers by the Russian military has been a sore spot inside the country for decades, leading to the formation of groups like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. That’s who Ukraine is trying to galvanize by extending its offer to return POWs *if* their mothers are willing to travel to Kiev. It’s foolish to free an enemy soldier while the war is still on but Zelensky’s government has evidently calculated that the propaganda benefits if their invitation is accepted would exceed the military costs of letting Russian troops go. They’re more likely to win the war by having Russians rise up at home than they are by routing the Russian army on the battlefield.
This video, allegedly narrated by a Russian soldier griping about conditions, is another propaganda coup for Ukraine that’s circulating. The part about the Russian military not bothering to retrieve the bodies of the fallen seems true, at least, as there are many photos and videos online of dead soldiers lying in the snow, seemingly abandoned.
— George Conway🌻 (@gtconway3d) March 3, 2022
Some have claimed that Ukraine’s habit of showing off Russian POWs violates the Geneva Conventions, which specify that prisoners of war must not be subjected to “insults and public curiosity.” It’s illegal to abuse them or treat them as war trophies, publicizing their captivity to gloat over your military success. The unusual wrinkle in Ukraine’s use of “public curiosity,” though, is that it’s aimed at a specific strategic end. It’s not a matter of trying to demoralize the Russian military; it’s an attempt to turn the Russian people against Putin. A nation that has no realistic prospect of battlefield victory is playing the one card it holds that might conceivably provoke enough unrest in Russia to force Putin to quit.
I’ll leave you with this clip and encouragement to take five minutes to read about how a single battle may have saved Kiev — for now. The reason Putin’s army is bogged down outside the capital, per the WSJ, is because they were never supposed to arrive by land. The plan was to seize the Hostomel airfield 20 miles away and then fly in Russian reinforcements, who would undertake a lightning strike on the city. Ukrainian troops fought off the Russian attack, however, delaying the siege and given Zelensky time to rally the world against Putin. It’s anyone’s guess whether a quick Russian takeover of Kiev would have drawn the same degree of economic pain from the west that Russia ended up facing. One small battle can change the world.
Ukrainians took over a Russian tank, learned how to use it, and now just need some orange mocha frappuccinos to really have a party pic.twitter.com/R4y1SrY5pl
— Zero Blog Thirty (@ZeroBlog30) March 2, 2022