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Russia’s Putin comforts mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine

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As anger over the protracted invasion of Russia simmers, President Vladimir Putin on Friday held his first public meeting of the nine-month war with mothers of soldiers who had fought in Ukraine, a move likely designed to quell discontent.

In a clip broadcast by Russian state media, Putin can be seen sitting with a group of women around a table decorated with ornate teacups and fresh berries for conversation to coincide with Russian Mother’s Day.

“I want you to know that I personally, the entire leadership of the country, share your pain,” Putin said, pausing and clearing his throat. “We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child, especially the mother, to whom we all owe birth.”

“I want you to know that we share this pain with you and, of course, we will do everything we can not to make you feel forgotten,” Putin added.

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He told a mother whose son died in Ukraine that “we are all mortal, and one day we will all leave this world.”

“It is inevitable. The question is how we lived,” Putin said. “Some die and it’s not even noticeable… But your son survived. His goal has been achieved. In that sense, of course, his life turned out to be significant, with results.”

The meeting comes as the grievances of ordinary Russians, especially those recently mobilized to replenish the depleted ranks, are beginning to enter the public space, despite the dire legal ramifications for criticizing the war.

In recent months, dozens of videos of soldiers or their relatives have appeared online detailing the recent mobilization and appalling conditions for some soldiers are on the frontline, with low morale, poor equipment and a lack of clear strategy on the battlefield.

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The soldiers said they had been abandoned by commanders and forced to wander through the woods without food or reinforcements. Some contract soldiers called in as part of the regular forces earlier in the campaign, complaining that they were exhausted and had not been rotated for months.

The mobilization effort, which officially lasted about a month and a half, reportedly saw 318,000 recruits thrown into battle as Russia tries to hold out against a bipartisan Ukrainian counter-offensive ahead of the cold winter that will further complicate the battle.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon’s top general, Army General Mark A. Milley, said more than 100,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded since the February 24 invasion. Tens of thousands of men have left the country to avoid being drafted. The Russian Defense Ministry officially claimed it had lost about 6,000 soldiers in September this year and has not updated the numbers since.

Putin used the meeting as an opportunity to repeat the well-known list of accusations against the West, which he says 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 properly in front of other soldiers, those who refuse to fight,” Putin claimed without evidence. “They have a different moral attitude and this proves once again that we are dealing with a neo-Nazi regime.”

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Even before Friday’s rally, Russian activists doubted whether the Kremlin would allow a candid conversation with mothers and wives whose loved ones are missing or dead.

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Groups such as the Council of Mothers and Wives, which has pleaded with officials to end the mobilization and return the men to their homes, and the veterans’ advocacy organization the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, which processes thousands of complaints from soldiers and their relatives, were not invited. The Kremlin only broadcast parts of the meeting and was not live.

“We’re not interested in this at all,” Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, said when asked if her group would have sent a representative if she had been invited. Melnikova said in an interview last week that the number of calls the committee received after the mobilization was announced had increased by “100 times.”

The group has been active for more than two decades, helping desperate mothers locate their sons during the Chechen wars. Melnikova recalled how parents then managed to sneak in military units and smuggle out dozens of conscripts, something unimaginable in 2022 as the Kremlin has a much tighter grip on power and military structures.

“We said to the parents, ‘Go get them. You can kidnap them, you can get them out through a hole in the fence. You can bribe an officer, give him brandy,” she said. “Now things are different, it’s a different state with different laws. It’s a totally different generation. I was sure that my children’s generation, growing up on the internet, would be independent and not so much influenced by propaganda. But they don’t care.”

“It’s crazy that the conversation is still not public even with the mothers who have been allowed to see Putin,” the Council of Mothers and Wives said in a post on the group’s Telegram blog. “Are they worried that some moms are still blurting something out?”

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The co-head of the council, Olga Tsukanova, has a 20-year-old son who is serving in Russia’s southern Astrakhan region. Tsukanova says his commanders have twice tried to send him to Ukraine, despite the Kremlin’s assurances that young, inexperienced men undergoing compulsory military service will not be involved.

The makeup of the televised rally’s attendees suggested it was orchestrated to avoid outbursts of public anger in Putin’s presence, as women in the room were mostly officials from pro-government movements, middle-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 the “Brothers in Arms” group helping Russian soldiers in Ukraine, who recently spoke at a concert organized by the Kremlin in Moscow’s Red Square in support of the illegal annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions.

“Like any Russian mother, I naturally worry about my children. But fear kills faster than a bullet, and we should not be afraid, but instead we should unite and consolidate the feminine energy, the feminine power that we have to create that reliable backside,” Uzunova said from the stage at the time.

Another participant, Zharadat Agueva, has two sons who both fight in Ukraine: Ismail is the senior commander of the Chechen Zapad-Akhmat battalion and Rustam is the head of a police station in the republic, notorious for beating detainees.

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