Putin tells Russian mothers he shares ‘pain’ at soldiers’ deaths

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday told a group of mothers whose sons are fighting in Ukraine that he shares the pain of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

The carefully choreographed meeting at Putin’s residence took place as Russia seethes with anger over a chaotic military service and the deaths of soldiers in Ukraine.

At least one woman at the meeting wore a black headscarf, apparently indicative of a recent loss.

“I want you to know – I personally and the entire leadership of the country share this pain,” Putin told the group ahead of Mother’s Day, which will be celebrated in Russia on Sunday.

“We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child,” Putin said.

He offered condolences to one of the women, saying her son had not died “in vain” and reiterated his promise to fulfill Moscow’s goals in Ukraine.

Russian authorities have introduced laws effectively banning any public criticism of the offensive. Kremlin critics accuse the authorities of concealing the true number of dead and wounded Russian troops.

Putin told the 17 women that Moscow was fighting the “neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine and warned that they should be careful about what they read on the internet.

“It is clear that life is more complex than what is shown on our TV screens or even on the internet, nothing can be trusted there,” he said.

– ‘Answer our questions’ –

He also denounced what he called attempts by the “enemy” to “devalue (and) compromise” Moscow’s tactics in Ukraine.

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

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

The meeting — the first of its kind since Putin’s February 24 offensive — is a sign that the Kremlin is taking the growing malaise seriously.

Before Putin’s meeting, some activists said the meeting would not provide a platform for open discussion.

“The President will meet with some moms that have been pulled out of his pocket who will ask the right questions and thank him,” said Olga Tsukanova, an activist mom.

“I’m not alone. Invite us, Vladimir Vladimirovich, answer our questions!” she told AFP before the meeting.

Tsukanova was not invited to meet Putin.

– ‘Muddy Trenches’ –

However, national television broadcast some critical comments from mothers who attended the meeting.

A woman whose husband and two sons fought in Ukraine said there wasn’t enough camouflage clothing.

“The uniform becomes unusable very quickly, the trenches are muddy and damp,” she added in televised speeches.

Another mother was shown on TV thanking Putin for “taking care of” the women.

Anger at the fate of mobilized men has put the Kremlin in an awkward position, analysts say.

While the authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent, the word of mothers seems sacred in Russia.

Locking them up is not an option, observers say.

Two wars in Chechnya led to the rise of the mothers’ movement in Russia, which was a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

But this time the climate is different, there is no more independent media in the country.

– “No peace movement” –

This means that the military campaign in Ukraine has hardly been publicly questioned. But in Russia, some are raising questions about the conditions under which their husbands and sons are sent to fight.

The status of mothers and wives as relatives of mobilized men serving the country gives them a form of protection.

“There’s a subconscious sense that women have the right” to hold power accountable, said sociologist Alexei Levinson of the independent Levada Center.

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

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

At the moment, the soldier mothers movement is uncoordinated and disparate, made up mostly of concerned relatives posting videos on social media.

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

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

“It’s not the journalists who get our boys out of the trenches and we don’t want to do them any more harm.”