As the Russian government remains silent about the number of losses it has incurred in its invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv is appealing directly to families of Russian soldiers to identify their relatives captured or killed in the four-day-old war.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry issued the appeal on February 27, directing relatives of Russian soldiers to online platforms where they can search through photos and videos of Russian soldiers captured or killed by Ukrainian forces.
The initiative, called Ishchi Svoikh (Look For Your Own), appears aimed in part at undermining morale and support for the war in Russia, where officials and state media have refrained from disclosing details of Russian casualties and military assaults against Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv.
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said the Russian government had been unresponsive about facilitating the return of Russian soldiers’ remains.
“For that reason, we have been forced to appeal to you, citizens of Russia, so that you can find those who were killed on our territory -- and killed because he illegally crossed our border based on an illegal and despicable order by your president,” Denysenko said in the video appeal, which the Ukrainian Interior Ministry posted on its official YouTube channel:
Russian authorities moved swiftly against the initiative's site, which was blocked by the government's media regulator the same day at the request of Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office.
The Russian Defense Ministry has yet to release information about the number of Russian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured since President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The Ukrainian military on February 27 said that Russia had lost around 4,300 military personnel, though that figure did not include a breakdown of the number killed, wounded, and captured.
A day earlier, the Ukrainian military said that more than 3,500 Russian soldiers had been killed, though it was not possible to independently corroborate that claim.
Ruslan Leviyev, the founder of the nongovernmental Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an open-source investigative group focused on the Russian military, said his team estimates that at least 500 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict so far.
“The [Russian Defense Ministry] itself is not acknowledging a single loss -- not prisoners of war or those killed in action. It’s as if there aren’t any at all,” Leviyev told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Shortly after Leviyev’s interview on February 27, the Russian Defense Ministry issued its first admission of casualties, but gave no numbers on how many the Russian military had suffered.
“Unfortunately, there are dead and wounded among our comrades,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov was quoted by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency as saying.
WATCH: Amid claim and counterclaim about Russia's war in Ukraine, open-source intelligence analyst Ruslan Leviyev says Russia has suffered at least 500 killed so far.
'Mama And Papa, I Didn't Want To Come Here'
The URL for the website launched by Ukraine for Russians to identify their killed or captured relatives is called 200rf.com -- a reference to "Cargo 200,” a code for the bodies of soldiers being returned. The bulk of the images, videos, and official documents of Russian soldiers are posted on an associated channel on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.
The photographs and videos include extremely graphic images of soldiers killed in battle, as well as on-camera interrogations of captured Russian soldiers.
In one post, a purported Russian POW is shown being allowed to inform relatives about his whereabouts. In another, a different alleged POW is asked if he has a message for his mother and father.
“Mama and papa, I didn’t want to come here. They forced me to,” the man says.
RFE/RL was unable to verify what kind of pressure the men in these videos may have been subjected to prior to giving on-camera statements.
Denysenko, the adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, claimed in his appeal to families of Russian soldiers on February 27 that Ukraine is treating war prisoners “very humanely.”
“No one is treating them badly. If necessary, we provide medical care. But your government took your relatives’ telephones away. They don’t have any way to contact you,” Denysenko said.
He added that as a paid service, parents could submit their own DNA information via the website for a test to determine the identity of soldiers killed in action.
A Lone Confirmed Death
Since the start of the war, there has been just one official confirmation of the death of a Russian soldier, but it did not come from Russia’s Defense Ministry. Instead, it came from the Moscow-appointed head of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region of Daghestan.
Sergei Melikov, who had headed the region since October 2020, said in an Instagram post that Russian officer Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, a native of Dagestan who served in Russia’s airborne troops, had died in combat and that he “received the tragic news with great regret.”
Melikov did not disclose how Gadzhimagomedov died.