“Willing or not, they send everyone considered necessary,” says representative of Russian soldiers’ mothers
Soldiers from all over Russia are being sent against their will to fight in Ukraine, said Valentina Melnikova, who works with the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. The mothers represented by the organisation are horrified by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while also fearing for the lives of their children taken as soldiers. According to Melnikova, the mothers and other family members often have to rely on Ukrainian sources to receive information about Russian soldiers.
Melnikova serves as the responsible secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, which received the Right Livelihood Award in 1996. The organisation has advocated for stopping Russian military actions for decades, pleading for soldiers’ return from military service.
Right Livelihood asked Melnikova about the current situation in Ukraine. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Right Livelihood: What have you heard from Russian soldiers about the situation on the frontlines?
Valentina Melnikova: I receive no information directly from the soldiers, there is no direct contact.
RL: How are soldiers recruited for fighting in Ukraine? Do they know what they are getting into?
VM: Like the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Georgia – no one gets asked before being sent out on combat operations. Willing or not, by conscription or by contract – they send everyone considered necessary. In 2008, during the war with Georgia, the situation was slightly different. They took those at the exercises, and the soldiers knew that they were going to South Ossetia. In Ukraine, perhaps they were not told where they were going. Soldiers were collected from all over the country, like in the war with Chechnya when they built units from sets of only 2-3 people from the same places so that the soldiers in a unit did not know each other. And now it seems the same, although judging by the lists of prisoners and the dead, more soldiers in each unit come from the same place.
RL: How do you get information about what is happening in Ukraine, especially, Russian casualties?
VM: Ukraine fulfils the Geneva Convention and carefully maintains and publishes lists of those captured and those who died when information is available. We have learned how to work in this new information reality. I have many friends, many of them are journalists, and they are helping me with technical solutions to get around restrictions in Russia.
RL: What is your message to the Ukrainian people?
VM: They are our brothers and sisters – we are with you and weep together with you, and we are trying to stop this war. I am Ukrainian on a Soviet passport, and my father is a Ukrainian from Chernihiv province. Today, I have cousins living in Ukraine. And I have friends and people there who have helped me a lot in the last 20 years. For me, this war is like a knife straight through the heart.
RL: What would you like the world to know as we see images of destruction and violence in Ukraine?
VM: The world did not respond to our requests and tears in 2014 when there was a war in Donbas. We asked the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights not to allow Russia’s aggression. Nobody heard us. In response, everyone said that they could not spoil relations with Russia. It is a pity that no one heard us when we asked for something so important. They act when something has already happened. When it is, one might say, too late.