The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has accused Russian authorities of disrespect towards the families of their own dead soldiers, criticising Moscow for not agreeing on a scheme to have the remains of those killed in action returned to Russia.
Zelenskiy claimed the Kremlin was affording less respect to those killed during its invasion of Ukraine than is usually given to dead pets.
“We’ve all had a moment in our lives when someone has passed away, maybe not even close people or relatives. Listen: even when a dog or a cat dies, that’s just not how to behave,” Zelenskiy said in an online interview with Russian journalists on Sunday evening. “I’m saying this to you as the president of a country that is fighting with Russian soldiers … It’s a war, but they are not animals.”
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, who is responsible for negotiations with Moscow on returning the remains, told the Guardian that despite repeated offers for Russia to present lists of the missing and have them returned, officials in Moscow are more concerned about covering up the scale of the losses.
She said she had spoken by telephone or Zoom to several Russian officials, including the deputy defence minister, Alexander Fomin, and Tatyana Moskalkova, the Kremlin’s ombudsman for human rights. “The Russian authorities don’t want these bodies. I talked to her, and said, ‘Take your bodies away.’ She had no response. She just said, ‘We’ll work on it,’” said Vereshchuk.
Russia’s defence ministry last week announced an official death toll of 1,351 for the first month of what Moscow has insisted on calling a “special military operation” in Ukraine, but Kyiv says the real total is more than 16,000. Nato last week estimated the Russian death toll to be between 7,000 and 15,000. Ukraine has not released figures about its own casualties.
Zelenskiy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the Russians had been using mobile crematoria in Crimea and Belarus to dispose of the remains of some soldiers, and that others were hard to retrieve.
“They are lying there in the fields and the Russians don’t take them. There are corpses inside ruined tanks; they’re burnt and difficult to get out,” he said.
Vereshchuk said Ukraine had the bodies of at least 2,000 Russian soldiers in refrigerated storage in different regions across the country, as well as other cases where there were some charred remains or simply a identification token with a name, but that the Russians were not interested.
“We are counting them all. We have the remains in fridges. We say to them, take them, they are in body bags, we can give them to the Red Cross, send them to the Belarusian border, to wherever you want, we’ll give you these bodies,” said Vereshchuk.
She added this would require Russia to send lists of the missing via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which Ukraine would then compare with the bodies it had and could return those that matched. The Russian authorities, she said, did not want to send lists because that would involve admitting how many soldiers have been killed.
Ukrainian officials have said they are trying to treat the remains of Russian soldiers with respect. However, they have also launched a Telegram channel that lists information about those killed in the invasion and that often features grisly photographs of their remains. Some legal experts have said this may violate the Geneva conventions.
On Monday, videos were circulated on a pro-Ukrainian Telegram account appearing to show Ukrainian soldiers using the phone of a dead Russian to call his relatives and gloat over his death. The video could not immediately be verified.
Svetlana Golub, the head of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, an NGO advocating for Russian soldiers’ rights, blamed Ukrainian authorities for blocking the return of bodies.
“Zelenskiy is simply lying. I am ready to personally go and pick up the bodies. The Ukrainian authorities aren’t allowing us to do it,” she said. She said her organisation had written several letters to Ukrainian police. “But they either refuse our requests or tell us that Russia first has to take back all of its troops. Sometimes they ignore our requests altogether,” she said.
In a previous interview with the Guardian, Golub said officials in the Russian ministry of defence were “dragging their feet” over returning the bodies. This time, Golub said she “couldn’t speak on behalf of her government”.
Some Russian NGOs and human rights experts are being careful not to openly criticise the country’s role in Ukraine after the president, Vladimir Putin, signed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military.
Golub said Ukrainian authorities were demanding that relatives take a DNA test before they could receive the bodies of their dead family members.
“That would mean each mother will have to come to Ukraine and give them her DNA. But why should the mother of a dead Russian soldier transfer her DNA to another state?”
Vereshchuk said the process under discussion for individual returns would actually involve Russian relatives providing a DNA sample to the ICRC inside Russia, after which Ukraine would hand remains over to the ICRC for return to their relatives.
A spokesperson for the ICRC said no such agreement had yet been reached. “We have ongoing discussions with the authorities on both sides on the issue of war prisoners, dead bodies and missing,” said the spokesperson.