As anger over the drawn-out invasion simmers in Russia, President Vladimir Putin on Friday held his first public meeting of the nine-month-long war with mothers of soldiers who had been fighting in Ukraine, a move likely aimed at quelling discontent.
“I want you to know that I personally, the entire leadership of the country, we share your pain,” Putin said, pausing and clearing his throat. “We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child, especially for the mother, to whom we all owe the birth.”
“I want you to know that we share this pain with you and, of course, we will do everything so that you do not feel forgotten,” Putin added.
He told one mother whose son died in Ukraine that “we are all mortal, and someday we will all leave this world.”
“It’s unavoidable. The question is how we lived,” Putin said. “Some die and it’s not even noticeable … But your son lived. His goal has been achieved. In this sense, of course, his life turned out to be significant, with a result.”
The meeting comes as grievances of ordinary Russians, especially those who have been recently mobilized to replenish depleted ranks, are starting to enter the public space, despite the grave legal consequences for criticizing the war.
In recent months, dozens of videos recorded by soldiers or their relatives have emerged online, decrying the recent mobilization and abysmal conditions some soldiers find themselves in on the front line, with low morale, poor equipment and lack of clear strategy on the battlefield.
The soldiers spoke of being abandoned by commanders and forced to wander in the woods without food or reinforcements. Some contract soldiers called up earlier in the campaign as part of regular forces complained they were exhausted and hadn’t been rotated out for months on end.
The mobilization effort, which officially lasted for about a month and a half, saw a reported 318,000 recruits thrown into battle as Russia tries to hold ground against a two-pronged Ukrainian counteroffensive ahead of the cold winter that will further complicate combat.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon’s top general, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, said that over 100,000 Russian troops were believed to have been killed or injured since the Feb. 24 invasion. Tens of thousands of men have left the country to avoid being drafted. The Russian Defense Ministry officially claimed it lost around 6,000 soldiers as of September this year and hasn’t updated the numbers since.
Putin used the meeting as an opportunity to reiterate the familiar list of accusations against the West, which he said uses Ukrainians “as cannon fodder” in the fight against Russia.
“This is not an exaggeration, they don’t care about the losses and they just shoot those who don’t behave the right way in front of other soldiers, those who refuse to fight,” Putin claimed without evidence. “They have a different moral attitude and this just once again proves we are dealing with a neo-Nazi regime.”
Even before the Friday meeting, Russian activists cast doubt on whether the Kremlin would allow a frank conversation with mothers and wives whose loved ones are missing or dead.
Groups like the Council of Mothers and Wives, which has pleaded with officials to end mobilization and bring the men back home, and the veteran advocacy group the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, which processes thousands of complaints from soldiers and their family members, were not invited. The Kremlin only broadcast parts of the meeting and it wasn’t live.
“We are not at all interested in this,” Valentina Melnikova, the secretary of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, said when asked if her group would’ve sent a representative if invited. Melnikova said in an interview last week that the amount of calls the committee received after mobilization was announced increased by “100 times.”
The group has been active for over two decades, helping desperate mothers locate their sons during the Chechen wars. Melnikova recalled how back then parents managed to creep into military units and smuggle out dozens of conscripts, something unimaginable in 2022 as the Kremlin wields a much tighter grip on power and military structures.
“We told parents, ‘Go and get them. You can kidnap them, you can get them out through a hole in the fence. You can bribe an officer, give him cognac,’ ” she said. “Now things are different, it’s a different state with different laws. It’s a totally different generation. I was sure my children’s generation who grew up on the internet would be independent and wouldn’t be influenced by propaganda so much. But they don’t care one bit.”
“It’s crazy that the conversation is still not public, even with the mothers who were cleared to see Putin,” the Council of Mothers and Wives said in a post on the group’s Telegram blog. “Are they scared that some mothers will still blurt something out?”
The co-head of the council, Olga Tsukanova, has a 20-year-old son who is a conscript in the southern Astrakhan region of Russia. Tsukanova says his commanders tried twice to send him to Ukraine despite the Kremlin assurances that young, inexperienced men undergoing mandatory service won’t be involved.
The makeup of attendees to the televised meeting suggested it was orchestrated to avoid any outbursts of public anger in Putin’s presence, as women in the room were primarily functionaries from pro-government movements, mid-level officials, and members of the ruling United Russia party set up by Putin himself.
One of the guests, Nadezhda Uzunova, is the regional leader of “Brothers in Arms” group that aids Russian soldiers in Ukraine, who recently spoke at a Kremlin-organized concert on the Red Square in Moscow in support of the illegal annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions.
“Like every Russian mother, I, of course, worry about my children. But fear kills faster than a bullet, and we should not be afraid but instead we need to unite and consolidate the feminine energy, the feminine power that we have to create that reliable rear,” Uzunova said from the stage at the time.
Another attendee, Zharadat Agueva, has two sons who are both fighting in Ukraine: Ismail is the high-ranking commander of the Chechen Zapad-Akhmat battalion and Rustam is the head of a police department in the republic, notorious for abuses against detainees.
Natalia Abbakumova and Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.
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