Russian soldier 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, urgently demanding that the military make good on promises made by President Vladimir Putin.

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

But chaos ensued, with widespread reports of exempted men — the elderly or infirm — being dispatched to the front or conscripts dying after receiving nearly no training, forcing the Kremlin to concede “mistakes”.

In a sign that Putin takes the growing malaise seriously, he is expected on Friday to meet a group of military mothers and wives for the first time since ordering 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 frank discussion.

“The president will meet with some mothers pulled out of his 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 doing his military service and she wants to make sure he will not be sent to Ukraine.

Tsukanova traveled 900 kilometers (560 miles) from the city of Samara on the Volga river in the hope of being seen at the Kremlin.

Sour memories

“I’m not alone. Invite us, Vladimir Vladimirovich, answer our questions!” she said, referring to the president by his 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 while troops fight in Ukraine, the word of mothers is sacred in Russia.

Imprisoning them is not an option.

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

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

Two wars in Chechnya led to the rise of the mothers’ movement in Russia that became a thorn for 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 there has been little public questioning of the operation in Ukraine. But in Russia some are asking questions about the conditions in which relative are sent to fight.

‘Hold power to account’

Mothers’ and wives’ status as relatives of mobilized men serving the country gives them a form of protection, rather than being considered ordinary opponents.

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

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

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

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

This is how Tsukanova, who has links to 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 the Soviet era, many women fear that complaining about the offensive could mean trouble and refrain from speaking to the foreign press.

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

“It’s not the journalists that will take our guys out of the trenches and we do not want to harm them even more.”

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