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Dozens detained as Russian soldiers’ wives call for their return from Ukraine

In Europe
February 03, 2024

More than two dozen people, mostly journalists, were detained Saturday at a protest in central Moscow, as wives and other relatives of Russian servicemen mobilized to fight in Ukraine called for their return, according to independent Russian news reports.

The relatives gathered to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just outside the Kremlin walls. They marked 500 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2022 ordered a “partial mobilization” of up to 300,000 reservists following battlefield setbacks in Moscow’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

The call-up was widely unpopular and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee abroad to avoid being drafted.

Wives and relatives of some of the reservists called up in 2022 have campaigned for them to be discharged and replaced with contract soldiers. Saturday’s demonstration was organized by one such campaign group, The Way Home, that on Friday posted on Telegram calling on “wives, mothers, sisters and children” of reservists from across Russia to come to Moscow to “demonstrate (their) unity.”

“We want our husbands back alive,” one of the protesters, who only gave her name as Antonina for fear of reprisals, is heard saying in a video published by independent Russian news outlet SOTAvision.

Antonina insisted she does not want compensation from the Russian government if her husband is killed, and said she would instead “either go to a convent or follow him.”

“I don’t want to live alone! And if (Russian authorities) don’t understand this … I don’t know. God be their judge,” she told a SOTAvision reporter, struggling to hold back tears.

Saturday’s demonstration was the ninth and largest of similar weekly gatherings organized by The Way Home. One popular Russian Telegram news channel estimated that some 200 people turned out.

Allies of jailed Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny and Russian opposition politician Maksim Kats voiced support for the protest on Friday, while the Moscow prosecutor’s office early on Saturday warned Russians not to participate in “unauthorized mass events.”

According to OVD-Info, an independent website that monitors political arrests in Russia, police detained 27 people during the protest, mostly journalists. According to Sota, most were later released, although a male protester, Yaroslav Ryazanov, was still in detention Saturday evening.

Aware of the public backlash, the Russian military has since late 2022 increasingly sought to bolster the forces in Ukraine by enlisting more volunteers. The authorities claimed that about 500,000 signed contracts with the Defense Ministry last year.

Still, the wives’ and relatives’ calls to bring mobilized reservists home have been stonewalled by Russia’s government-controlled media, and some pro-Kremlin politicians have sought to cast them as Western stooges. Protesters on Saturday angrily rejected the accusation.

Maria Andreyeva, whose husband and brother are fighting in Ukraine, told SOTAvision that she saw the fighting in Ukraine as “a great tragedy that happened between two brotherly peoples.”

“Almost every Russian has relatives in Ukraine, close and distant, so… this is a situation that has struck us to the core. After the Second World War, it seemed to us that our grandfathers died so that there would never be another (conflict),” Andreyeva said.

The protest came just weeks before the Russian presidential election, scheduled to take place over three days on March 15-17, that Putin is all but assured to win. After Andreyeva and others laid flowers at the monument, they headed to Putin’s campaign headquarters to present their demands to him.

Last month, another Russian presidential hopeful met with Andreyeva and other soldiers’ relatives campaigning for their return. Former local legislator Boris Nadezhdin, who openly opposes the war in Ukraine, criticized the Kremlin’s decision to keep them in the ranks as long as the fighting continues.

“We want (the authorities) to treat people who are doing their duty in a decent way,” Nadezhdin said.

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