Russian soldiers’ mothers challenge Putin

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Moscow (AFP) – Their videos are flooding Russian social media – mothers and wives of soldiers mobilized to fight in Ukraine are urging the military to honor promises made by President Vladimir Putin.

Anger and concern have been building across Russia since September, when the Kremlin announced that hundreds of thousands of well-trained and well-equipped men would be called up and sent to the battlefield to bolster Moscow’s struggling campaign in Ukraine.

But chaos ensued, with widespread reports of exempt men – elderly or infirm – being sent to the front or conscripts dying after receiving almost no training, forcing the Kremlin to admit “mistakes”.

In a sign that Putin is taking the growing malaise seriously, he is expected to meet a group of military mothers and wives on Friday for the first time since he ordered Russian forces into Ukraine nine months ago.

But some relatives have already dismissed the meeting as carefully choreographed and one that will not offer a platform for honest discussion.

“The president will meet with some mothers out of pocket who will ask the right questions and thank him,” said Olga Tsukanova, an activist mother.

“As usual.”

Her 20-year-old son is currently serving his military service, and she wants to make sure he is not sent to Ukraine.

Tsukanova traveled 900 kilometers (560 miles) from the city of Samara on the Volga River, hoping to be seen at the Kremlin.

Sour memories

“I am not alone. Invite us, Vladimir Vladimirovich, answer our questions!” she said, referring to the president by her patronymic.

Anger over the fate of mobilized men, which risks degenerating into real discontent, has put the Kremlin in an uncomfortable position, analysts have said.

While authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent as troops fight in Ukraine, mothers’ words are sacred in Russia.

Imprisoning them is not an option.

For Putin, the sight of angry relatives may bring back difficult memories from the beginning of his rule more than two decades ago.

In August 2000, the Russian leader was criticized for reacting too slowly when the Kursk submarine sank, killing all 118 crew on board.

Two wars in Chechnya led to the emergence of the mother movement in Russia, which became a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

But this time the climate is different, with no independent media left in the country and a de facto ban on public criticism of Putin’s offensive.

This means that there has been little public questioning of the operation in Ukraine. But in Russia, some are questioning the conditions under which relatives are sent to battle.

‘Hold power to account’

The status of mothers and wives as dependents of mobilized men serving the country gives them a form of protection rather than being viewed as common opponents.

“There is a subconscious feeling that women have that right,” said sociologist Alexei Levinson of the independent Levada Center.

“But this is not a woman for peace movement,” he warned.

“They want the state to fulfill its responsibility as a ‘collective father’ to the mobilized.”

So far, the soldiers’ mothers movement is uncoordinated and disparate, consisting mainly of concerned relatives posting videos on social media, where some informal groups have formed.

This is how Tsukanova, who has connections to the controversial opposition figure Svetlana Peunova – accused in Russia of spreading political conspiracy theories – became involved in the mothers’ movement.

In a climate of suspicion not seen since Soviet times, many women fear that complaining about the offensive could mean trouble and refrain from speaking to the foreign press.

“We have sent letters to the authorities,” one woman told AFP anonymously.

“It’s not the journalists who want to take our guys out of the trenches, and we don’t want to hurt them even more.”

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