Kyiv, Ukraine — “Excuse me for disturbing you, I’m calling regarding my brother.”
“Do you have any information about my husband?”
“Hello hotline, is this the place that you can find out if a person is alive?”
These are excerpts from audio recordings made to a Ukrainian government-run hotline. Mothers and fathers, wives, siblings and others are engaged in a desperate search for their loved ones as Russia’s war with Ukraine extends seemingly without end.
The shaky voices at the end of the line are not calling to search for Ukrainians, however – they are looking for information on Russian soldiers.
In recordings shared exclusively with CNN by the Ukrainian officials operating the hotline, the desperation and uncertainty in the callers’ voices sheds light on how tightly Moscow is controlling communications about the war.
The recordings indicate that many Russian soldiers seemed to not have known what their plans were or why they were being deployed, and bolster reports of Russian soldiers being denied communication with their families.
A wife, speaking through tears, calls with a desperate inquiry about her husband:
Videos have appeared online since the invasion began on February 24 showing Ukrainian civilians and soldiers allowing Russian soldiers to call home and speak with their parents.
The hotline, called “Come Back From Ukraine Alive,” was established by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, which has acknowledged that the initiative is both a humanitarian and a propaganda tool.
Kristina, a pseudonym for the woman tasked with running the hotline, asked CNN not to disclose her identity for security reasons. She is a psychologist by training.
From an undisclosed location in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv she explained the aims of the hotline.
“First of all, we will help [the Russian solders] find their relatives who were deceived and without knowing where and why they are going and found themselves in our country. And secondly, we will help to stop the war in general,” she told CNN.
Since being established in the opening salvos of this war, the hotline has been ringing non-stop, Kristina said. It has taken more than 6,000 calls since February 24. The calls have come from locations as far apart as Vladivostok in Russia’s far east and Rostov-on-Don, close to the Ukrainian border.
Logs also show some of the calls have originated outside of Russia, coming from across Europe and even as far away as the United States, including from the states of Virginia, New York and Florida.
CNN spoke with three people who called from the United States to confirm that they had indeed rung the hotline and see if they had received any information from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry about their loved ones.
Marat, who lives in Virginia and is not being fully identified by CNN to protect his privacy, said that he had found a photo of his cousin’s ID card on a Ukrainian government-connected Telegram channel called “Find Your Missing,” or “Ishi Svouik” in Russian.
The channel is dedicated to publishing information about captured, injured or killed Russians fighting in Ukraine. It posts photos of passports, names, dog tags and military unit information.
Marat is pretty candid about his cousin’s likely fate.
“We do realize that all the signs are pointing to that most likely he was killed in action, but (we are) still trying to locate information where is the body that can be potentially found. Or maybe hopefully, he’s alive,” he said.
Marat’s family in Ufa, Russia, asked him to call the hotline for fear of prompting reprisals from Russian authorities by searching for their son.
“The family is trying to not get contacted by anybody because everybody is so scared in Russia. Everyone’s scared to talk, everyone’s afraid of law enforcement agencies tracking them,” said Marat.
What is increasingly clear is the grip Russian President Vladimir Putin has on the narrative of this war at home. The only acknowledgement of casualties has been an anodyne statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense, saying that 498 had died.
Marina, another caller who CNN reached by phone in Florida, said her aunt was not getting any information from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“They tried to find him, but no one is answering,” Marina said. So, she felt her only hope was to call the Ukrainian hotline, but it didn’t have any information yet on her cousin.
“They just told me that as soon as they will have some information… because I was, you know, hoping that he is like maybe in prison or something like that, you know, that he’s still alive?” Marina said.
A senior Ukrainian government official told CNN that the hotline had connected dozens of Russian families to Russian soldiers in Ukraine. “We invited them to come to Ukraine to meet with their sons, but so far none have decided (to do so).”
According to officials working on the hotline, the vast majority who called said that their sons or husbands had told them they were sent for reservist training or military exercises and that many lost contact with their families on February 22 or 23, just before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Back in Kyiv, Kristina, the hotline director, is haunted by the calls she has taken.
Through streams of tears, she said: “A father called … he said ‘our kids are being used as expendables, as [a] meat shield. The politicians, the big people are playing their games, solving their issues, while our kids are dying, because somebody wants to make money on it or satisfy personal ambitions and become a King of the World.’”
That view from callers is not an exception. In one of the recordings shared with CNN, a distraught wife, crying, phones in.
Kristina recounts how she took another call from a fiancée looking for her husband-to-be. “It touched me she was asking for forgiveness. She kept saying, ‘Forgive us, we did not want to attack you. This is not our war. We did not want to do this.’”
Yet, the hotline isn’t just designed to offer answers, it is also a propaganda tool, to galvanize Russians against the war – a war that now seems increasingly likely to be protracted and bloody.
“We are trying not to think how long this will go on for,” said Kristina. “We just hope that this will end shortly. The more people we can share the truth about what’s happening in Ukraine with – the more people will go out on streets protesting and demanding to stop this bloodshed.”
A call from a man looking for his paratrooper brother sums up the situation.
“Good luck guys. The whole civilized world supports you. We believe in you,” he says.
Above all, if the calls show anything, it is that this is not Russia’s war – it is Putin’s.