Hours after Alexei Agafonov arrived in the Luhansk region on November 1 as part of a new army battalion, his unit was given shovels and ordered to dig trenches overnight.
Their digging, which they took turns for lack of available shovels, was abruptly interrupted early the next morning as Ukrainian artillery lit up the sky and bullets rained down on Agafonov and his unit.
“Ukrainian drones first flew over us and then their artillery started pounding us nonstop for hours,” Agafonov, who survived the shooting, told the Guardian in a phone interview on Monday.
“I saw men torn apart before me, most of our units gone, destroyed. It was hell,” he said, adding that his unit’s commanders abandoned them before the shooting began.
Agafonov was summoned to the southwestern city of Voronezh on October 16, along with 570 other soldiers. RussiaMore than 300,000 men have been drafted in to go and fight in what the Kremlin calls “special military operations” as part of Vladimir Putin’s nationwide mobilization push.
After the attacks stopped, Agafonov, along with approximately a dozen other soldiers, retreated through the forest outside the Luhansk city of Makivka to the nearby Russian-controlled town of Svatov. In Svatov, Agafonov and his group went to a deserted building and tried to contact the other soldiers who were with him that night.
According to Agafonov’s estimates, only 130 of the 570 draftees survived the Ukrainian onslaught, making it the deadliest incident since the mobilization campaign began in late September.
“And those who survived lost their minds after what happened. Nobody wants to go back,” Agafonov said.
The incident points to Russia’s willingness to dump hundreds of unprepared troops on Ukraine’s eastern front, where some of the heaviest fighting is taking place, in an effort to stem Kiev’s advance.
Anger is growing in Russia as more coffins are returned from Ukraine, bringing home the remains of conscripts.
Some details surrounding last week’s shooting could not be independently verified. But the Guardian spoke to another soldier, as well as two family members of surviving soldiers, who gave similar accounts.
“We were completely exposed, we didn’t know what to do. Hundreds of us died,” said another soldier, who asked not to be named. “Two weeks of training doesn’t prepare you for this,” he said, referring to the limited military training he received before being sent to Ukraine.
Russian investigative outlet Verstka, which first Reported On Saturday’s incident, it cited the account of a third soldier, Nikolai Voronin, who gave a similar description of the Ukrainian shooting in the early hours of November 2.
“There were many dead, they were lying everywhere … their arms and legs were torn off,” Voronin told Verstka. “The shovels we used to dig our trenches are now being used to dig out the dead.”
The shooting has sparked outrage in Voronezh, where a group of men’s wives gathered on Saturday to record an angry video message addressed to the local governor.
“They put the draftees in the lead on the first day. The command fled the battlefield,” Inna Voronina, the wife of a drafted soldier whose fate is unknown, said in the video.
Another soldier’s mother is heard saying: “They tell us on the phone that our children are alive and well and doing their military duty. How are they alive and well when they were all killed there?”
Last Friday, Putin boasted that Russia had recruited 318,000 people into its armed forces, citing a large number of “volunteers”. He went on to claim that the phrase was “not an empty word”, as the popular Russian saying “we do not leave our own behind”.
But the chaotic mob campaign and subsequent loss of life have drawn criticism even among the war’s most ardent supporters.
In a scathing statement above TelegramAnastasia Kashevarova, a well-connected pro-war journalist, denounced Russian commanders on the ground who she said were mobilizing untrained men.
“The group of [mobilised men] They are left without communication, without essential weapons, without medicine, without artillery support,” she said. “Zinc coffins are already arriving. You told us that there would be training, they would not be sent to the frontline in a week. Did you lie again?”
In a video filmed at a training center in Kazan, the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan region, dozens of recently mobilized men can be seen harassing military leadership over lack of pay, water and food. The officer, identified as Major General Kirill Kulakov, is seen retreating after being insulted by a large angry crowd.
Perhaps sensing growing discontent, Putin said on Monday that he planned to “personally discuss with the Russian people” the issues surrounding mobilized support. He called on the local authorities to “pay attention” to the mobilized soldiers and their needs.
According to a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, the mobilization drive has not gained Russia any new ground, despite its seemingly high costs.
The report said the Russian military was “wasting fresh supplies of combined personnel on marginal gains” instead of mustering enough soldiers to ensure success.
“Such an offensive operation would have been more successful if the Russian military had waited until it had massed forces large enough to overcome Ukrainian defenses,” the organization said last Thursday.
In another sign of poor morale and communication at the front, several pro-Kremlin journalists published an open letter from an elite Russian naval infantry unit criticizing the decision of its superiors after heavy losses in what they called an “unconscionable” attack. Pavlivka village.
According to Ukrainian military and pro-Russian officials, Russian forces invaded Pavlivka, southwest of Donetsk, on November 2. Four days later, the 155th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade wrote to the governor of their home region in Russia’s Far East, Oleg Kozemyakko, accusing their military leaders of killing 300 soldiers.
“We were understandably put on the offensive,” the letter was quoted by several prominent pro-war bloggers.
Although the Guardian was not able to independently verify the contents of the letter, Kozemyakko admitted it was true but said it exaggerated the true scale of the damage.
“We contacted the commander. Yes, there is damage, there is a strong fight, but they are far from what is written in this appeal,” he said in a video statement on his Telegram channel. “I am sure that in any case the situation will be analyzed and assessed by the competent authorities.”