This week, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, read out before the General Assembly what he said were text messages a Russian soldier sent to his mother moments before he was killed. They were obtained, he said, by Ukrainian forces after the soldier died.
“Mama, I’m in Ukraine,” the ambassador read. “There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We are bombing all of the cities together, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us and they are falling under our armored vehicles, throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass. They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.”
The messages — read out under the global spotlight of a high-profile United Nations meeting — offered a poignant reminder of the human cost of war. They also served as a potent example of how central the battle is for public opinion around the world in a lopsided war between Russia’s military machine and a scrappy, increasingly better-armed Ukraine.
Both sides’ efforts to influence the narrative and perception of the war are striking.
Ukrainian officials are using the reports and images on social media of Russian casualties to try to undercut the morale of the invading forces. President Vladimir V. Putin, meanwhile, has described the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky as “a band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And at least some Russian soldiers appear to have imbibed the misinformation emanating from the Kremlin that their invasion would be welcomed.
Ukraine’s military, interior ministry and U.N. ambassador did not respond to requests for more information to help verify the authenticity of the messages read out at the United Nations.
Whatever their origins, the messages allude to an undeniable theme of the war: Fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces has denied Mr. Putin the quick and easy victory Russia appears to have anticipated, while some among Russia’s young military force have been ill-prepared for battle and buffeted by bad morale.
On Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official said that entire Russian units had laid down their arms without a fight after confronting surprisingly robust Ukrainian defenders. In some cases, Russian troops have punched holes in their vehicles’ gas tanks, presumably to avoid combat, the official said.
The decision to read the text messages, Russia experts and Pentagon officials said, was also a not-so-veiled reminder to Mr. Putin of the role Russian mothers have had in bringing attention to military losses that the government tried to keep secret.
In fact, a group now called the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia played a pivotal part in opening up the military to public scrutiny and in influencing perceptions of military service, Julie Elkner, a Russia historian, wrote in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.
For Mr. Putin, the rising death toll on the Russian side could undermine domestic support for his Ukrainian incursion. Russian memories are long — and mothers of soldiers, in particular, American officials say, could easily hark back to the 15,000 troops killed when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan, or the thousands killed in Chechnya.
Mr. Putin has tried to counter assessments from Western officials that Russia was running into greater resistance than expected. But on Thursday, he acknowledged there had been losses, promising the families of the fallen a special payout of 5 million rubles, or nearly $50,000.