Putin faces growing threat from the wives and mothers of mobilized soldiers

The grass-roots movement poses a real challenge in the run-up to Russia’s March 2024 presidential election.

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In Russia, the wives, mothers and other relatives of mobilized soldiers have become a growing thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

Through protests, appeals and petitions, they have expressed their mounting anger at the Russian state for not allowing mobilized soldiers to return home from Ukraine.

Russia’s political leadership faces a stark choice between placating this increasingly vocal movement and maintaining troop numbers in its war on Ukraine.

Unpopular mobilization

On 21 September 2022, President Vladimir Putin announced a ‘partial mobilization’, allowing the Russian military to call up around 300,000 reservists. As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned into a lengthy war, the mobilization was needed to meet the Russian military’s personnel needs.

But the move was deeply unpopular. Many Russians – especially young men – fled the country to avoid being called up. Thousands were arrested for protesting against mobilization – and Putin’s approval rating took a clear hit.

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned into a lengthy war, the mobilization was needed to meet the Russian military’s personnel needs.

The end of mobilization was announced in late October 2022. This meant, in principle, that the state would stop calling up reservists. But Putin did not sign a decree formalizing the decision, leading to uncertainty and speculation regarding the future of mobilization.

An organization named the ‘Council of Mothers and Wives’ was set up following the announcement of ‘partial mobilization’. Its goal was to coordinate activities across the country by relatives of those mobilized, including pressuring the authorities to resolve issues such as men being called up illegally or being given faulty equipment.

The council tried to engage directly with Putin but its members were rebuffed. Instead, the Kremlin organized a staged meeting in November 2022 with participants apparently picked for their pro-regime track record.

Demonstrating the hopelessness of civil society mobilizing against military mobilization, the council was labelled a ‘foreign agent’ in May of this year and subsequently closed in July.

But that was not the end of the story.

Endless mobilization

More than a year after ‘partial mobilization’ was announced, grievances were growing about ‘endless mobilization’.

When asked in September 2023 at what point mobilized soldiers would be allowed to return home, Colonel General Andrey Kartapolov – chairman of the Duma’s defence committee – said ‘after the end of the special military operation’. There was, therefore, no end in sight.

Connected via social media, a growing informal regional network joined together wives and other relatives of the mobilized. This grassroots movement is united by a simple goal: to secure the return of their loved ones.

On 7 November, some members of this nascent movement joined a rally organized by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in central Moscow.

The decision to join an existing event was an effective way of circumventing the dramatic crackdown on dissenting voices and protest seen across Russia over the past few years, particularly since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Applications by regional groups of the movement to hold standalone protests have been rejected in most cases, with the authorities citing COVID-19 restrictions.

But that has not stopped coordination online.

Pressure on Putin

The movement has framed itself as being non-political. A manifesto published on 12 November on the Telegram channel ‘The Way Home’ said it was ‘not interested in rocking the boat and destabilizing the political situation’.

The movement is not anti-war – it is anti-mobilization.

The movement is, crucially, not anti-war – it is anti-mobilization. And one of the reasons it presents such a threat is that its participants include people from Putin’s support base.

But the reaction from the Kremlin was silence.

On 27 November, ‘The Way Home’ published an ‘appeal to the people’, along with a petition allowing individuals to add their signature in support of the movement’s manifesto. The language was now more visceral – ‘we are being betrayed and destroyed by our own’ – and directly mentioned Putin.

The appeal refers to the president’s past broken promises, limiting his ability to deflect blame to lower-level officials.

It notes that Putin has decreed 2024 to be the ‘year of the family’ in Russia – and the bitter irony of this, when ‘wives wail without their husbands, children grow up without their fathers, and many have already become orphans’.

The text also notes the president’s ‘sense of humour’ when mobilized men are being made to stay in the conflict indefinitely, but prisoners can secure their freedom by fighting for mere months.

Zugzwang

The Kremlin is in a lose-lose situation. If it allows mobilized soldiers to return home, it will face an acute shortage of troops. That might necessitate a second – even more unpopular – mobilization, which could lead to even more social strife.

The Kremlin is in a lose-lose situation.

But if the authorities don’t allow the soldiers to return home, they face the growing ire of an influential section of Russian society – including previously loyal supporters of Putin and the system he has created.

The optics of cracking down on wives pleading for their husbands’ lives would also not be good in the run-up to the presidential election, scheduled for March 2024.

That explains the variety of attempts made to diffuse the movement, from intimidation to trying to buy off participants.

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The Telegram channel ‘The Way Home’ has been labelled ‘fake’ in an attempt to discredit its content, along with local groups.

According to the Russian investigative website The Insider, regional governors have been instructed to prevent the movement’s activities spreading ‘to the streets’ in the run-up to the March presidential election – at ‘any cost’.

But a key challenge for authorities is the organizational structure of the emerging movement. The links joining together relatives of mobilized soldiers are horizontal; there is no top-down structure for the Kremlin to focus on, isolate and destroy.

The Russian government now appears trapped between the rhetoric of support for what it calls ‘traditional values’ and the pleas of wives and mothers to protect their loved ones.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma – the lower chamber of the bicameral national legislature – has said that supporting families will be a priority for the Duma in 2024. But the Russian government now appears trapped between the rhetoric of support for what it calls ‘traditional values’ and the pleas of wives and mothers to protect their loved ones.

How this tension will play out during the presidential campaign remains to be seen.