Putin meets with Russian military moms — but not the ones criticizing the war mobilization

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen attending a meeting on Friday with mothers of Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow. (via REUTERS - image credit)
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen attending a meeting on Friday with mothers of Russian servicemen fighting in Ukraine, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow. (via REUTERS - image credit)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin sat at a table with more than a dozen military mothers outside Moscow on Friday, he expressed sympathy for the women who had lost loved ones fighting in Ukraine.

But he also urged the group not to believe the "fake" news they see on the internet or television.

His pre-recorded meeting with a select group of women hand-picked by the Kremlin was a deliberate move to try and show that Putin understands the plight of hundreds of thousands of Russian families whose sons, husbands and brothers were drafted to fight in Ukraine.

At the same time, the spectacle was an attempt to discredit rampant criticism about the country's military and a mobilization process that many say was deeply flawed and ended up sending poorly trained, ill-equipped troops to their deaths in Ukraine.

As they sat gathered around a table set with tea and cakes, Putin told the group "we share your pain" and that he called the meeting ahead of when Russia celebrates Mothers Day, on Nov. 27, because he wants to hear the women's  "opinions, ideas and suggestions."

via REUTERS
via REUTERS

Left off the guest list were women who have been publicly demanding to speak to Russia's military leadership about the draft — and, in some cases, learn the whereabouts of men they say were sent to Ukraine and have not been heard from since.

"We have questions, but we don't get answers," said Olga Tsukanova, co-head of the Council of Mothers and Wives. She spoke to CBC on the phone before agreeing to an in-person interview in Moscow with a freelance camera person hired by CBC.

Her grassroots group has been petitioning the Russian government for weeks, urging officials to address their concerns around a mobilization drive that saw 300,000 men drafted this fall, with a third of them already sent into combat, according to officials.

Tsukanova, who lives in Samara, about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Moscow, got involved after successfully battling to keep her son out of Ukraine, and was contacted by other women looking for help.

She has made public appeals, along with other women who have recorded videos that are circulating on social media.

CBC hasn't been able to verify the videos, which have appeared on Russian social media sites SOTA and Verska, and are also widely circulated by Ukrainian and Western social media accounts.

Calling Putin out 

After the Kremlin announced it was convening a meeting of mothers, Tsukanova stated that the invitees — who she was not in contact with — would simply ask "questions that would be agreed [on] beforehand."

Tsukanova called out Putin personally on one of her social media accounts, asking if he was a man and had the "courage to meet us face to face…. not with pre-agreed women and mothers who are in your pocket."

submitted/CBC
submitted/CBC

She believes speaking out has made her a target, and says that in recent days she has been trailed and surveilled by a number of men.

On the day she met the camera person hired by CBC in Moscow, she pointed out two men who were nearby.

"They have been following us every day. We don't even have political demands. Our demands are quite ordinary."

Tsukanova says while the group doesn't believe the war benefits Russia, the women aren't directly protesting the conflict. Instead, they are calling out the leadership for what they see as myriad problems with Russia's military, including poor training, inadequate equipment and general mistreatment of the men.

When Putin announced a partial mobilization on Sept. 21, crowds of young men swelled at Russia's international airports while lines of traffic kilometres long appeared at the country's land borders, as prospective draftees rushed for the exits.

But in the weeks since, other images have emerged of those who remained and were drafted.

Plea from wives

In one video posted on social media on Nov. 10, a group of women claiming to be from Voronezh, Russia, say they are willing to go to Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in a desperate effort to get their men back.

They say their husbands and sons were ordered to dig trenches on the front line, but given no artillery support. CBC has not been able to verify that claim.

"It's time to act and not think and not wait until everyone will be chopped into this bloody meat grinder," said one woman.

In other videos, which CBC has also not been able to verify, recruits show off their dismal living conditions and gear.

In an online video that surfaced in mid-October, a soldier is filmed on a moving bus wearing a protective vest that falls short of covering his torso.

"We were given super bulletproof vests tonight,'' he said, pointing toward what he describes as an Airsoft vest, designed to protect against the plastic projectiles fired from recreational Airsoft weapons. "They are going to send us to Ukraine with this piece of shit."

Another video posted on Nov. 18 shows a group of soldiers standing in a snow-covered forest purported to also be in the Voronezh region. Some stand around fires, while the camera whips around to show loosely hung tarps. It was reported by relatives of the soldiers  that the men were left in the forest, without tents, and had to purchase their own food.

Threats caught on camera

At times, complaints have boiled over into threats.

In a video posted on social media on Nov. 13, mobilized soldiers believed to be in the Moscow region are seen shouting at a commanding officer. One threatens to go down to headquarters and start breaking "everyone's limbs one by one" until he gets answers.

He wants to know why men are having to buy their own medical kits and vests. He accused the officer of sabotaging the orders of President Putin because soldiers are getting very little shooting training before being sent to war.

REUTERS
REUTERS

Another unconfirmed video published on Nov. 25 purported to show soldiers near Moscow going through a stash of food found at a military warehouse. As they sort through boxes of tea, biscuits and canned meat, someone can he heard off camera commenting about the "jars and jars" of food.

"No one is given any of this," said the man, believed to be a newly mobilized soldier. "It is all rotting, but we only get fed once a day."

'Very big mess'

None of the videos or public complaints are surprising to Sergey Krivenko, the director of the human rights organization Citizen. Army. Law.

"I have been defending the rights of military personnel for 20 years," he told CBC in an interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where he moved after leaving Moscow earlier this year.

"Indeed, the Russian army is in a very big mess."

Krivenko says before the mobilization drive, his group, which provides legal advice about military service, would get about 30 or 40 messages a day. This fall, he was getting 5,000 messages a day and needed to bring on extra lawyers and dozens of new volunteers to help with the load.

He said many of the complaints were about recruits who were never given the mandatory medical examination required by law before they were sent off to training.

Krivenko said at first, Russian defence officials tried to keep the public calm by making it seem like the newly mobilized soldiers would not be sent to the front line — rather, their roles would be to provide support.

But Krivenko says that image is "colliding with reality."

REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov
REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov

"People suddenly realize that they were sent to war and understand that the Russian army is not what they show on TV."

Russia's Ministry of Defence has pushed back against the criticism and the slew of social media videos by releasing its own footage of packaged interviews.

They show eager recruits lining up for new military uniforms, sleeping bags and mats.

In the government footage, one unnamed soldier thanks their commanders, "who feed and clothe us."

End to mobilization?

Russia announced an apparent end to the mobilization drive during a televised meeting on Oct. 28 between Putin and the country's minister of defence, Sergey Shoigu.

During what appeared to be a staged exchange, Shoigu told Putin that 300,000 men had been mobilized and that 82,000 had already been sent to Ukraine.

Shoigu admitted that in the early stages, there were problems with "various types of supplies," but claimed the issues have been resolved.

Putin replied that problems were "probably inevitable" given the scale of the mobilization.

During the president's meeting with the military mothers on Friday, at least one of the attendees expressed concern around the safety gear being issued to soldiers. Putin said the defence ministry was working to resolve it.

Other women in attendance praised his leadership, and one spoke about her son, who was killed in Ukraine back in 2019, three years before Russia launched its current invasion.

Krivenko, who says the Ministry of Defence is "out of control," believes the government will launch more repressive measures against those who dare speak out against Russia's handling of the war.

He believes the only reason there haven't been more fines and arrests already is because most are directing their criticism at the military, not Putin.

"Nobody criticizes Putin's actions, but [instead] criticizes the actions of seemingly bad commanders."

With files from Corinne Seminoff, Reuters