As Vladimir Putin wages war against Ukraine, he faces a growing threat from within his borders: the angry relatives of Russian soldiers.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and the war has only intensified in the months since. And as more Russians are sent to fight, their wives and mothers have become an increasingly powerful force of dissent, arguing that their loved ones are ill-used or deserve to return home after nearly two years of war.
It is not the first time that Russian soldiers’ relatives have protested and risked angering the government’s powerful security establishment.
During the Soviet Union, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers played a pivotal role in publicising dedovshchina, the practice of hazing and abusing younger, newer servicemen.
The CSM “emerged as a mass movement” while Mikhail Gorbachev was president, “aimed at exposing and eradicating the violence endemic in Soviet military barracks,” one scholar wrote in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.
The wives and mothers of Russian soldiers today appear to be taking a page out of a similar playbook.
Their resistance has been so concerning that Federal Security Service (FSB) agents have questioned soldiers whose wives are protesting and military officers have threatened to send soldiers to the front lines if their wives do not back down, The Washington Post reported.
“Your methods are very dirty,” said one message posted to a Telegram channel advocating for soldiers to be brought home, according to The Washington Post. “You are trying to calm our anger by putting pressure on our relatives.”
Citizens have been targeted for a slew of actions that the government deems anti-war speech, from people painting their nails blue and yellow – the colours of the Ukrainian flag – to requesting that a DJ play a Ukrainian song, to spray painting anti-war slogans in the snow.
But the Russian president faces a more complex dilemma where the relatives of soldiers are concerned. Namely, how do you silence dissent while managing the political risks that come with stifling the voices of women whose sons and husbands are fighting on Putin’s orders?
The Washington Post noted that Putin recently squashed a proposed new round of mobilisation that would allow for beleaguered soldiers who have been fighting for a year or longer to come home.
“There will be no pity,” Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst in France, told the outlet. “And the Kremlin will try to keep them silent. And if there will be some more radicalised actions, they will resort to more repressive measures.”
Russian soldiers, meanwhile, are growing increasingly demoralised, distrustful of military leadership, and desperate to return home.
Their anger has intensified as the war nears its 24th month and soldiers frequently complain about a lack of access to basic necessities, to a troop shortage that has resulted in untrained and unequipped conscripts being thrown into the thick of battle.
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