Russian women ask Vladimir Putin to bring soldiers home from Ukraine

In early January, young sports instructor Tatiana took a nine-hour bus ride to Moscow to visit the Defense Ministry and ask her boyfriend, who was drafted to fight in Ukraine, for permission to return home.

His comrade is among the 300,000 Russian men called up in a large conscription in September 2022 and deployed on the Ukrainian front. Now, 16 months later and with no prospect of an end to their military service, their relatives are increasingly clamoring for their release.

Their growing frustration leaves the Kremlin reeling, caught between the need to keep men on the ground, nearly two years after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the political imperative of maintaining soldiers’ families, the backbone symbolic of patriotic support for the war, aside.

“I was never very interested in politics before,” Tatiana told the Financial Times shortly after her trip to Moscow, where she hand-delivered letters to the ministry. “But, damn, it’s been over a year. The boys are tired. . . As for us, even our physical, emotional and mental resources are not unlimited.”

In Russia, men who sign up as “volunteers” in special army battalions for a fee are usually able to return home after six or nine months. Many convicts, recruited from prison by the late warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, were allowed to serve for six months and, with their crimes pardoned, returned home.

But no time limit has been set for recruits mobilized in September 2022. Statements from Russian officials have gradually signaled that the mobilized men are expected to continue fighting until the war ends.

“You feel the injustice,” Tatiana said. For her battlefield companion it was “quite disheartening to sit there and say goodbye to a prisoner who has been at the front for six months and now can go home.”

Russian soldiers say goodbye to their families
Last year, Russian soldiers said goodbye to their families as they prepared to join their garrisons © Anton Vaganov/Reuters

The wives and girlfriends began to ask for the demobilization of their men especially last autumn, a year after their call to arms. Around that time, Tatiana started looking for women with the same interests as her and joined several online groups.

A sense of urgency developed as women started leaving chat groups with words like: “Girls, there’s no point in me staying, my boyfriend is dead.” This prompted Tatiana to start “making a fuss,” she said.

Women are divided on their goals and approach. Some, like Tatiana, avoid protests and focus on writing letters and petitions calling for the replacement of their men with newly drafted troops, rather than an end to the war.

Others are more outspoken and call for the suspension of President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization order. Earlier this month, several dozen women took to the streets of Moscow in their largest protest to date, wearing white headscarves and carrying red carnations toward a military memorial outside the Kremlin.

They were celebrating “500 Days of Hell,” according to Route Home, the women’s group that organized the event. Their loved ones “were not guilty of anything but had been sentenced to indefinite slavery,” organizers said.

The group explicitly opposes the call for more men. “We don’t want this fate for anyone,” he said in a post on his Telegram channel, where he has nearly 70,000 followers. “God forbid anyone has to go through what we go through every day.”

Although criticism of the war is effectively banned in Russia, the Route Home march, which ended at Putin’s campaign headquarters, drew little response from the police. Some male supporters and journalists were arrested and most quickly released.

“You can see that the Kremlin doesn’t really understand how to deal with the situation,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Moscow-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “They are not undertaking serious repression, and this shows that they are hesitating.”

But manpower problems mean discontent is unlikely to convince the Kremlin to release the mobilized soldiers.

THE mobikias they are often known, make up a large part of Russian forces in Ukraine, and Moscow is already struggling with troop numbers, said Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.

The Russian army represents a “mixture of recruits, convicts, mercenaries and remnants of the contingent of contract soldiers, commanded by a dwindling officer corps,” he said.

With numbers limited, detainees are forced to continue fighting even after their six-month deals expire, according to a recent investigation by BBC Russian.

If the mobilized soldiers were sent home, a new draft would be needed to replenish the ranks – an unpopular move just weeks before Putin’s expected re-election in mid-March.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with soldiers involved in the war in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with soldiers involved in the war in Ukraine © Sputnik/Kristina Kormilitsyna/Pool/Reuters

Putin’s 2022 mobilization order created mass panic, with queues of cars forming at Russia’s borders as hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. “Each new mobilization attempt will require more coercion and violence,” Luzin said.

A rotation of recruits would also bring many disgruntled men back into society, who have seen the reality of Russia’s war effort. “The Kremlin is seriously afraid that a large number of people will return home from the front,” Luzin said.

In a question-and-answer session in December, Putin assured the public that there would be no second mobilization. Several women contacted by the FT said they had sent questions about “demobilisation” but the topic had been ignored.

Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Duma defense committee, said last month that such requests did not come from real Russian women but had been invented by the CIA. Replacing conscripts is counterproductive, he added, given that “they have been fighting for a year, they have become professionals”.

“What stops others from becoming professional soldiers too?” – said Tatiana. “Ours don’t. They were cooks, lawyers, builders. She stressed that she supported Putin and accepted the mobilization order, but she felt that one year of service was enough.

Russian troops in Mariupol
Russian troops in the devastated city of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov coast in 2022. Families of those conscripted to fight say they have served long enough ©Aleksandr Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

“One percent of the population fights for the good of the other 99 percent. It’s probably unfair,” said Evgenia, a local government employee in Nizhny Novgorod. “If the government managed to recruit 300,000 people once, it can probably do it a second time.”

When Evgenia’s husband was mobilized last fall, she was sure it would only be for a few months. “No one in their right mind could have imagined that the government would simply seize them and then leave them there indefinitely,” she said in a phone call to the FT.

Most women seek to correct what they see as a failure in the proper conduct of the war, rather than push to end it, and therefore do not represent a true anti-war movement, Kolesnikov said.

Even as their sense of desperation is growing, they are unlikely to unite in a broad peace movement “because of the rigidity of the regime, because everyone is afraid of everything and because society has adapted to war,” he said.

Tatiana said she received two responses to her numerous letters. She didn’t find them satisfactory. However, she didn’t think protests were the right approach. “I’m not the type to mess with authorities.” Asked what she would do instead if her campaigns hadn’t worked, she said she didn’t know, adding: “Hope is the last to die.”

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