A Russian governor in Siberia was confronted by angry citizens who accused the government of "deceiving" young men before deploying them as "cannon fodder" in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Amateur footage of the testy exchange at a meeting between Sergei Tsivilyov, governor of the Kemerovo region, and locals in the city of Novokuznetsk was posted online as early as March 5.
The website of Tsivilyov's administration makes no mention of the meeting, and his office did not respond to a request for comment. But an analysis by RFE/RL reveals that the confrontation took place at the training base of riot police units, whose officers were killed or captured in combat in Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion on February 24.
The meeting in a gymnasium at the base for OMON riot police in Novokuznetsk comes amid the Kremlin's rapidly escalating efforts to control information about its war in Ukraine, including a fast-tracked law that allows for up to 15 years in prison for those convicted of spreading "false news" about the Russian military.
As Tsivilyov addressed the gathering, a woman yelled that everyone was "deceived" about the deployments to Ukraine.
"No one has lied to anyone," Tsivilyov replied.
Another woman in the audience responded: "They were sent as cannon fodder."
As tensions escalated during the discussion, a woman in the audience asked where Governor Tsivilyov's son was.
"My son is studying at a university," he answered.
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said on March 6 that more than 11,000 Russian troops had been killed since Moscow's invasion, which has triggered an unprecedented wave of sanctions targeting the Russian economy and political elite.
The number of dead could not be independently corroborated. The Russian Defense Ministry has released little information about its casualties. In its most recent account, it said on March 2 that 498 of its soldiers have died since the start of the war.
Riot Police Casualties
RFE/RL was unable to independently confirm who was in the audience in the Novokuznetsk meeting with Tsivilyov, or the exact date of the meeting. But comparing the footage with two separate YouTube videos -- including one posted on the official account of the regional branch of Russia's National Guard -- shows clearly that the meeting was held in the gymnasium at the OMON base in the city.
Members of Novokuznetsk OMON units were among the Russian fighters killed or captured by Ukrainian forces in Bucha, a city some 20 kilometers outside Kyiv, on February 28. Footage from the aftermath of the battle shows OMON gear among dead bodies and the wreckage of Russian military vehicles.
Battle footage also shows gear marked as belonging to the Russian National Guard's special rapid-reaction unit (SOBR) from Tsivilyov's region, which is also known as the Kuzbass.
At least two Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine have identified themselves as officers of the Novokuznetsk OMON, though RFE/RL could not confirm what kind of duress they may have been subjected to prior to giving testimony to Ukrainian forces.
One of the prisoners said he and his fellow fighters were told in early February that they were being sent away for a training exercise and ultimately ended up in Belarus before learning they would be invading Ukraine.
His account corresponds to that given to RFE/RL's Russian Service by the friend of another Novokuznetsk OMON officer who went missing in Ukraine.
"They told everyone that they were being sent for a training exercise in Belarus," the friend said on condition of anonymity, citing fears of facing treason charges. "The last time I talked to him was on the eve of the invasion. He sent me a video saying they'd forced them to take the plates of their vehicles and turn over their phones. That's the last I heard from him."
The friend cited survivors of the battle as saying that the Novokuznetsk OMON officer who'd sent the video had died on "that bridge" -- likely a reference to a bridge destroyed in the Bucha battle.
"The commanders are silent and don't say anything. And the guys don't like to talk much either if they call their loved ones, because it's a state secret and no one wants to go to jail," the friend said.
"Everyone is scared, and nobody understands anything."
'You Mean When Everyone Dies?'
Tsivilyov told the audience at the Novokuznetsk gymnasium that the Russian government has rightly kept details about its invasion of Ukraine -- which the Kremlin insists on calling a "special military operation" and falsely claims has not targeted civilian infrastructure -- tightly under wraps.
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Told by members of the audience that "our boys" were unprepared to carry out an invasion and "didn't know their objective," Tsivilyov said:
"Look, you can shout and blame everyone right now, but I think that, while a military operation is in process, one shouldn't make any conclusions."
"We shouldn't criticize. When it ends, and it will end soon," Tsivilyov added before a woman interjected: "[You mean] when everyone dies?"
In an apparent effort to ease the audience's concerns, Tsivilyov likened the Kremlin's approach to the Ukraine invasion to the Soviet Union's bloody 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan that helped set the stage for the Soviet collapse.
"It was officially stated that we had declared war, and the first who entered Afghanistan didn't know where they were going," Tsivilyov said. "They found out when they already entered.”
"By the way, there are still guys alive from that group," he added about the war that Soviet officials reckoned killed an estimated 15,000 Soviet troops and millions of Afghans.