Putin, as War Casualties Mount, Faces a New Foe at Home: Wives and Mothers of Soldiers Stuck at the Front

For the next six weeks, until Russia’s presidential election, the wives and mothers of soldiers are Russia’s political untouchables.

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Maria Andreyeva speaks during a meeting of soldiers' wives at Moscow, January 11, 2024. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, the macho man who once posed bare-chested astride a Siberian stallion, now wrestles with a women’s movement — the wives, mothers and sisters of Russian soldiers fighting in the trenches of Ukraine.

Mr. Putin is old school, believing that a woman’s role is to send her sons off to war, and then produce more baby boys for the army. That may have worked in the past, but Stalin did not have to deal with soldiers and their wives with smartphones.

A Telegram channel for wives and mothers of Russian soldiers called “The Way Home” asks: “Why do we need a president that pretends we don’t exist? Who lives only on TV completely under his control? These are obvious methods of cowards and rats. And who is our rat king?”

That is pretty salty talk for a country where a woman was arrested last week for wearing rainbow-themed earrings — deemed by Mr. Putin’s regime to be gay propaganda. Another woman was sentenced to seven years in jail for placing anti-war stickers on supermarket shelves. On Wednesday, Russia’s Duma gave final approval to a bill that would allow authorities to confiscate property from people convicted of “discrediting” the army.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaks to Maria Kostyuk, mother of Andrei Kovtun who was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Russia, after a ceremony to present Gold Star medals to Heroes of Russia on the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day at the St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.
President Putin speaks to the mother of a soldier killed in Ukraine, Maria Kostyuk. Her son, Andrei Kovtun, was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Russia at Moscow, December 8, 2023. Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP

Yet for the next six weeks, until Russia’s presidential election that runs March 15-17, the wives and mothers of soldiers are Russia’s political untouchables. Demanding a return of their men drafted 15 months ago, “The Way Home” has gathered 39,084 subscribers on Telegram and has created subchannels in half of Russia’s 82 regions.

The group calls on women, on Saturday at noon, to don white scarves and to bring red carnations to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the foot of the Kremlin walls. The silent protest will mark 500 days since a national draft swept up 300,000 men to fight in Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine. 

Many went believing it was for one year. If past protests are a guide, some women will carry signs saying: “Return my Husband” and “Bring Dads Home to the Children.” Police will probably film the women but refrain from making arrests at this “unsanctioned protest” at the nation’s capital.

Mr. Putin knows full well that one generation ago, in 1996, a similar group, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, successfully pressured his predecessor, President Yeltsin, to cut short his failing war on Chechnya. In that 20-month war, Russia’s army lost about 23,000 men killed or wounded. In Mr. Putin’s 23-month war on Ukraine, the CIA says that Russia’s army has lost almost 14 times as many.

“At least 315,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded, two-thirds of Russia’s prewar tank inventory has been destroyed,” the director of central intelligence, William Burns, writes in an essay in Foreign Affairs. Of Mr. Putin, Mr. Burns adds: “His war in Ukraine is quietly corroding his power at home.”

Ukraine’s defense ministry reports that this month Russia has been losing 1,000 soldiers a day — killed or seriously wounded — as Mr. Putin seeks to achieve some sort of “victory” before the vote. “Is it scary that we’ll reveal all your secrets … that we will reveal the whole mess in the [war] zone?” one writer on the Telegram channel taunts Russia’s president. “Are you afraid that the illusion of stability will fall before the elections?”

Two weeks ago, the anti-war presidential candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, met at Moscow with leaders of the “Way Home” movement. “The country wants peace, it’s crystal clear,” Mr. Nadezhdin said, the AP reported. “The country wants this to end. People want to bring back those who are there.”

Despite a news blackout about the women’s protests, petitions, and letters to the president, about half of respondents to a Russian Field poll in December supported the women’s demands for the immediate return of draftees from the war. Only 32 percent were opposed. Among Russians ages 18 to 29, support rose to 69 percent. Of equal importance to Mr. Putin, polls indicate that about 60 percent of respondents oppose a second draft. On December 14, on his “direct line” national call-in show, Mr. Putin did not take questions from “The Way Home” movement. Yet he emphatically promised that there will not be a second draft in 2024.

“As a result, soldiers mobilized in the final months of 2022 are stuck on the front lines of the war with little chance of any break in their service, prompting protests from family members,” an exiled Russian politician, Vladimir Milov, writes in an Atlantic Council blog post that asked, “How Strong is Russian Public Support for the Invasion of Ukraine?”

To try to control this women’s movement, Russia uses a mix of carrots and sticks, according to comments made on Telegram. Some women write on the channel that government officials have offered them money “to shut up.” Others say they have received home visits from members of state security agencies. Pressure includes threats to have their husbands given “one-way tickets” to assault units. From the war zone, soldiers say on channel the they have been pressured to send home “war is fine” video clips.

State-controlled TV hosts accuse the women of being traitors and the tools of foreign powers. TV airs videos of rival, pro-government women’s groups. A government-orchestrated pressure campaign led Telegram to place the label “Fake” on “The Way Home” channel.

On December 8, when Mr. Putin announced he would run for re-election, one vocal supporter was Maria Kostyuk. Her son died in Ukraine. She works for Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation, a state-backed organization founded by Mr. Putin that promotes the war. Begging him to run for a fifth term, she told the president: “Our guys are on the front lines performing their duty, and we are in the rear, and our guys did not leave their front, so do not leave us.”

The women on “The Way Home” channel are unmoved by such blind support for the president’s war. One soldier’s wife, identified only as Paulina, ridicules Mr. Putin for declaring 2024 Russia’s “Year of the Family.” Paulina, the mother of a young child, writes: “Why is it the year of the family and I don’t have a husband? It’s like mockery or taunting.”

Blacked out by the national media, a movement leader, Maria Andreyeva, walked into Mr. Putin’s Moscow election headquarters on January 20 and argued with campaign workers. “I’m interested to know when he will issue a decree that my husband has to be home,” she said, referring to Mr. Putin, in Reuters’ account of the exchange. (The Associated Press reports that Ms. Andreyeva has a brother at the front.)

When a campaign worker suggested that Ms. Andreyeva pray, she retorted: “What will I get back? A man without legs, without arms, a sick man? Don’t you know what’s happening there?”

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use