A high-ranking Ukrainian official has accused Russia of abandoning the bodies of its dead soldiers in Ukraine to avoid paying compensation to their families.
“They [the Russians] don’t care about their soldiers,” Oleg Nikolenko, the spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said in an interview with The Irish Times.
“They don’t take dead bodies from the battlefield. We have so many bodies of Russian soldiers. They are kept in freezers. We are waiting for Russia to take them. They don’t take them because, according to their legislation, the family of every dead soldier receives seven million Russian roubles. When the soldier is missing, no body means no money.”
President Vladimir Putin told the Russian Security Council in March that the families of servicemen killed in Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine would receive a lump sum payment of 7.421 million roubles (€121,000) plus monthly compensation, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The treatment of Russian soldiers should be “a red flag” to Ukrainians who might be tempted to accept Russian occupation, Nikolenko said. “If they treat their own soldiers this way, how would they treat people in the occupied territories? There is no way that they will respect this population, because what they do to their own people is unacceptable and unimaginable.”
Nikolenko said Russia had lost nearly 40,000 soldiers in five months of war. The US estimates that Russian casualties in Ukraine so far have reached about 15,000 killed and perhaps 45,000 wounded, according to the CIA. Russia classifies military deaths as state secrets even in times of peace and has not updated its official casualty figures frequently during the war.
Ukraine does not divulge casualties for its own military or civilians, though President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said this week that about 30 soldiers are being killed and 250 wounded daily, a dramatic reduction from the peak of up to 200 killed daily in May and June.
Officials credit the arrival of advanced weapons systems such the US Himars rocket launchers, which enabled Ukraine to destroy Russian ammunition stockpiles, for the decrease in casualties. Experts say a diminution in the intensity of fighting may also be an explanation.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on July 13th that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children – some without their parents – have been forcibly transferred to Russia. The deportation of civilians from occupied territories is a war crime.
Ukraine closed its diplomatic missions in Russia at the beginning of March, and has asked NGOs in Russia, and Ukrainian missions in Finland, Georgia and Poland, to assist deported Ukrainians.
Some Ukrainians go to Russia because they are not allowed to cross into government-held territory and hope to make their way from Russia to Europe and back into Ukraine, Nikolenko said. The government is particularly concerned about Ukrainians who are sent to Siberia without documentation. “They deport them to Siberia to fill gaps in population in those areas.”
More than five months after the war started, the Ukrainian government’s position has hardened.
Zelenskiy initially called on Russia to withdraw to the territories it occupied on February 24th. That was misinterpreted to mean that Ukraine might accept the loss of those territories.
“After the crimes in Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, it was impossible to continue the same narrative,” Nikolenko said. “We saw that Russia cannot be trusted… The official position is that Ukraine is interested in negotiations, because every war ends with a negotiated solution. But so far, we don’t see any willingness from Russia to negotiate in good faith. The ultimate goal is to liberate all our territories from Russian occupation, including Crimea and Donbas.”
In the early stages of the war, Zelenskiy seemed to accept Russia’s demand that it become a neutral country.
“Nato membership is a long-term objective which we never abandoned,” Nikolenko said. “What the president was saying was that Ukraine needs security guarantees now.”
Ukraine will not lay down arms until Nato, or powerful western nations, provide iron-clad guarantees of protection in the event Russia attacks it again.
That possibility is being explored in the working group on security guarantees for Ukraine, which is co-chaired by Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskiy’s office, and former Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The president’s office said in a statement after the group’s second meeting on July 22nd that “an interconnected system of multilateral and bilateral duly ratified agreements between Ukraine and the guarantor states” will be required.
Zelenskiy has promised that vast areas of southern Ukraine seized by Russia will soon be liberated. Overnight on Tuesday, Ukrainian forces damaged the Antonivskyi bridge across the Dnipro river in Kherson. The occupation government said it was closed for repairs.
“Russia is trying to absorb the occupied territories of the south,” Nikolenko said. “They are trying to speed up the process of giving Russian passports to the population. They are preparing the referendum to make these regions join the Russian Federation. Ukrainians living in those territories want to remain in Ukraine. It may be a different story with Donbas or Crimea.”
Nikolenko regards Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement this week that Russia is ready to negotiate as a ploy to stall Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“They understand that Ukraine is preparing a counteroffensive in the south, and they want to create the impression that it is Ukraine who is not willing to negotiate,” Nikolenko said.
“This is being done to gain more time, to stage fake referendums and to absorb these territories. We don’t see any willingness from them to negotiate. They are still shelling Ukrainian cities. They are still violating small agreements, like the grain deal. They say one thing publicly, but they do other things on the battlefield.”
Russia agreed on July 22nd to allow Ukraine to resume exports of grain from its Black Sea ports, but then repeatedly attacked the main port at Odesa. Ukrainian officials said exports would resume this week, but now say they “hope” shipments will resume “in coming days”.
Ukraine was reported to have mined the ports to prevent a Russian landing. It is not clear if waters are being de-mined, but Nikolenko implied that Ukraine knows where the mines are and will steer ships carrying grain safely through them: “Everything happening in territorial waters will be controlled by Ukraine, including ports. We said we would take care to direct ships through safe corridors so they can safely go out into international waters.”
UN secretary general António Guterres had hailed the grain agreement as “a beacon of hope”. Lavrov said on July 25th that nothing in the agreement prevented Russia from continuing to attack Ukraine.
“We see no connection between those two processes [the grain deal and pursuit of the war],” Nikolenko said. “On the contrary, we see Russia intensifying its offensives. They shell Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and other Ukrainian cities every day.”
Zelenskiy no longer chides Ukraine’s allies for not doing enough. Officials express only gratitude.
“Ireland is a small country with a big heart,” Nikolenko said. “It opened its doors and heart to embrace Ukrainian refugees. This will not be forgotten in Ukraine. We really appreciate Ireland’s stance on backing Ukraine’s EU candidacy, in providing humanitarian support and in backing EU sanctions. Our relations with Ireland are a model for relations with any country.”