Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has built up the image of a powerful nation with an indomitable leader and a disciplined army, encircled by enemies and fighting for the future of the motherland. Never mind that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, that there has been plentiful evidence of Russian soldiers looting and raping, or that what was supposed to be a bloodless blitzkrieg has turned into a costly war of attrition. Roadside billboards with portraits of fallen soldiers carry the tagline “hero of victory,” though there’s no actual triumph. A popular slogan roughly translates as “we leave none of our people behind,” though the armed forces routinely do just that, abandoning bodies in the mud or in makeshift Ukrainian morgues.
The Kremlin sustains its official narrative with a tight grip. But as the war drags on, campaign aims shifting, there’s one inconvenient truth that even President Vladimir Putin will increasingly struggle to muffle: the men who fail to come home. No constituency is as hard for him to dismiss as the mothers, wives and daughters of soldiers, especially if tempers rise along with widespread economic hardship. Their anger and grief has helped to galvanize public opinion in the past, tarnishing the image of the military and the state. It can do so again.
Russia’s losses in Ukraine have already been staggering, even if the pace has slowed since the disastrous early days. It’s hard to be precise because official Defense Ministry figures have not been released since March 25, and even then inevitably undercounted, with 1,351 Russian service members reported to have been killed. Ukraine calculates around 30,000 Russian deaths, an overestimate. But even half that, as Britain’s defense secretary reckoned in April, would not be far off the number the Soviet Union officially lost in its decade-long conflict in Afghanistan. And the number is rising.
We’ve seen the power of mothers before. During the 1980s bodies were returned from Afghanistan in sealed zinc coffins and headstones carved only with “killed fulfilling his internationalist duty.” Aided by the freedoms of glasnost, angry mothers began to demand information on deaths and injuries. They campaigned actively against dedovshchina, the brutal hazing of young conscripts, and forced the Soviet military to provide answers for the first time.
The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers remained front and center during the first Chechen war, when they marched to the capital Grozny, negotiated to bring their sons home and gathered evidence on the killed and wounded. Mothers’ fury put Putin on the spot over his desultory response to the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, with 118 on board. “They earn $50 a month and now they’re stuck in that tin can! What did I raise him for? Do you have children?” one pained mother shouted at Kremlin officials. She was silenced — television footage showed her being injected with a substance and collapsing, though she later denied being tranquilized — but public anger was harder to soothe.
It will play out differently in 2022.
The ability to press the military for transparency in the late 1980s, mothers’ influence during the Chechen war in the 1990s, and even the outbursts over Kursk, were possible in a context of relative media and political freedom, thanks to perestroika’s reforms and the chaos that followed. It’s no accident the mothers had far less success during the second Chechen campaign, as Putin’s time in office got underway. Today, there’s wall-to-wall propaganda glorifying the fallen, control of the media and little tolerance for protest of any kind.
As Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London pointed out to me, there’s also the fact that unlike in either Afghanistan or the first war in Chechnya, when society was more equal and families of all kinds were affected, those involved in this conflict are by and large not conscripts but contracted soldiers, young men seeking a way out of poverty, coming from ethnic minorities and distant regions — with little political clout.
It’s telling that a list of nearly 1,100 fatalities analyzed by the BBC Russian Service in early April did not include a single man from Moscow, a city of roughly 13 million. There were only five from the wider Moscow region and one from St Petersburg. Buryatia, a republic with fewer than a million people, had 52 fallen servicemen. Dagestan, in the Caucasus and with some three million inhabitants, had 93.
And there’s the simple reality that a death is easier for families to handle if it is heroic, making them more likely to accept the official line, even when it flies in the face of their experience. When Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich wrote her polyphonic book on the soldiers of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and their families — “Boys in Zinc”, after their coffins — she was threatened, and eventually sued by several of her subjects for libel and defamation. “Mothers of sons who had died in Afghanistan came to the trial with portraits of their children, with their medals and insignia,” she later wrote. “And, to me, the mothers said, ‘We do not need your truth, we have our own truth.’”
But with every casualty, the fiction is harder to sustain, and the questions more pressing. It’s a risk that grows with every sunk cruiser or badly hit parachute regiment. Especially when the war’s goals remain murky.
Ukraine has spotted the opportunity. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has appealed directly to Russian mothers. The government in Kyiv set up a hotline and runs a Telegram channel and website with pictures of those captured, for families searching for loved ones — to spread the word.
It’s a danger Putin recognizes and has struggled with since his plans for a three-day war went wrong in late February. He has repeatedly said there are no conscripts on the front in Ukraine — the use of conscripts in battle remains a highly sensitive issue — and has resisted mass mobilization. But his Defense Ministry has had to acknowledge that some conscripts have been deployed, and some captured. And facing heavy losses of troops and equipment, Putin has just removed the upper age limit for contract soldiers. As the fight drags on, he will have to pull in reserves, or more of those doing their compulsory military service. (Though most likely not women, who make up a tiny portion of the armed forces and are not generally permitted in frontline roles.)
As Ben Noble, who studies Russian domestic politics at University College London, points out, casualties, like economic hardship, will test the limits of the regime’s propaganda and repression because both are directly experienced by ordinary Russians, whatever television talk shows say. And there will be a tipping point for both.
Three factors make matters worse for Putin. One is that even by the standards of autocrats, he struggles with empathy that might help navigate a public crisis. He only found time to visit injured servicemen three months after the invasion of Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s idea of presidential compassion was footage of wooden handshakes distributed in a spotless Moscow hospital where no one actually appeared to be particularly ill. As Noble put it to me, it’s a personalist regime without a human face.
Then, there’s the fact that unlike around the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the patriotic surge in Russian opinion shown in surveys after the fighting began also shows significant anxiety. Asked in March what they felt about the war, most did first mention pride in Russia — but then it was fear, anxiety and horror. For younger respondents, fear, anxiety and horror came first. There are already disgruntled relatives speaking up and attacks on draft offices.
Finally, there’s Putin’s emphasis on women as mothers, as he grapples with Russia’s dismal demographics and leans on traditionalist views to rein in society. He has, for example, sought to restore the Soviet title of “Heroine Mother” for women with large families. It’s hard to glorify, then silence.
Moms and wives can’t topple Putin or end the fight, just as their distress didn’t force troops out of Afghanistan or end the Soviet Union. But their grief and growing numbers of casualties — which state media cannot airbrush away with laudatory coverage alone — tarnishes the military and the state with unpredictable consequences.
“We got so used to living on two levels, one according to what we read in books and the press, and the other — totally different — according to our own experience,” one woman told Alexievich, after extracts from her book were published.
“Everything you wrote was true, except that reality was even more terrible.”
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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