Russian President Vladimir Putin visited a Russian hospital Wednesday to meet with soldiers that have been injured in the war in Ukraine, in what is believed to be the first time he has met with wounded service members since launching the war in Ukraine over three months ago.
Putin, accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, met with several soldiers and shook their hands Wednesday, according to footage released from the Kremlin pool.
In his visit Wednesday, Putin didn’t make it anywhere close to the carnage or the war—the hospital he visited for his photoshoot is in Moscow, according to a release from the Kremlin.
In one exchange, Putin asked a soldier about his son, who is just 9 months old, and said the baby would be proud of his father, according to footage Pavel Zarubin, a journalist with Rossiya 1 TV, shared on Telegram. Putin also met with the medical personnel of the hospital.
“Each of them is exposing his life to mortal danger, doing so consciously, and they should be treated as such, as heroes,” Putin said while meeting with government officials later Wednesday, according to state television.
Путин пожал руки военнослужащим, которые были ранены в ходе спецоперации pic.twitter.com/LyIIYmTkQe
— Кремлевский пул РИА (@Kremlinpool_RIA) May 25, 2022
Putin’s first visit to his wounded soldiers comes as his war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, with his military continuing to bleed hundreds of soldiers each day, according to some estimates. Although the Russian Defense Ministry has only issued casualty estimates up until March 25—where it said 1,351 were killed and 3,825 were wounded in Ukraine—so far, 29,450 Russian troops have died, according to tallies by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine shared Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov made efforts to make the visit look routine, claiming that Putin makes this kind of visit all the time. Putin “constantly deals with" wounded soldiers and has visited them “many times before,” he said, according to The Moscow Times.
But the Kremlin continued to refer to the war in Ukraine as just a “special” military operation, masking the true bloodbath it has been for the Russian military and Ukrainian fighters and civilians alike.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, visited his wounded troops in hospitals much earlier in the war. Zelensky visited wounded soldiers in March, just days after Putin kicked off the war, and has since visited soldiers fighting Russian forces.
The Kremlin's PR stunt, which took place in clean, brightly-lit hospital rooms, glosses over the dirtier details about the war in Ukraine. Russian troops for months have been complaining about the government’s treatment of their ranks, and in particular, how the Kremlin is trying to cover up the details about soldiers that are wounded or dead. There are so many dead Russian troops that Putin’s cronies have been shipping their corpses back to Russia in small groups in the dead of night in order to avoid making a big show of just how many losses they’re suffering in Ukraine, according to Russian fighters who were caught speaking of the hush-hush transports in intercepted phone calls Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) shared early this month.
Russia has a long history of trying to cover up military failures and casualties. During the war in Afghanistan in the '80s, the government also shipped soldiers’ corpses back home at night, and just in the last several years has forced families of dead troops who died in Ukraine to agree to not expose how their children died.
Despite the PR stunt from Peskov and Putin, though, Russian soldiers are seeing right through the Kremlin’s efforts to punch up morale around the war effort. On the ground, the amount of support troops are getting from Moscow is quite different. Some soldiers have complained they don’t have sufficient first-aid supplies to save each other’s lives. In a recent battle in the Black Sea, Russian troops and their family members phoned each other to complain about their realization that the Russian government was not providing enough air support to back them up in the fighting.
Just this week a group of captured Russian troops shared with the SBU that they tried to deescalate when they learned they weren’t up against Ukrainian fighters in a recent “battle” and that they were being asked to attack civilian infrastructure and civilians instead. But their commanders informed them if they wanted to leave, they would have to be shot or injured in combat in order to step aside.
“We understood that it is complete nonsense when artillery hits civilians, residential buildings,” one Russian soldier said, according to an interview the SBU shared.
Putin sent in a commander in another case to admonish, tie up, and cart away a group of fed-up troops after they were caught complaining about Putin’s war, according to recordings shared by Ukrainian intelligence.
Putin, for now, appears prepared to let the war go on for some time, even though he has pared it back to focus on the eastern portions of Ukraine for now, according to intelligence assessments from the U.S. intelligence community. The Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, told lawmakers earlier this month that Putin, increasingly desperate as the war drags on, may resort to “escalatory military actions” to achieve his goals.