The women Putin doesn’t want to talk about – POLITICO
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Vladimir Putin oozed confidence as he cruised through his first audience with the public and press since launching his war against Ukraine on Thursday.
That is hardly surprising considering the event has long been an instrument for the Kremlin to communicate its own agenda through carefully vetted questions.
More telling were the topics that did not get airtime.
This year, among the most glaring omissions — aside from the Russian president’s nemesis Alexei Navalny going missing — was a women’s protest movement.
In recent weeks, a group of wives and mothers of those who have been mobilized for Russia’s war in Ukraine has dominated headlines and social media.
The women’s message, distributed online in a smattering of manifestos and videos and in small rallies, is clear: They want their loved ones to be discharged from military duty and replaced by fresh recruits.
It is as close to a collective expression of dissent as can be found in today’s Russia, where those who criticize the Kremlin have either been jailed, forced underground or into exile.
Crucially, the group’s members belong to Russia’s so-called patriotic camp and do not oppose the war itself, but criticize the way it is being managed (much like Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin did before he was blasted out of the sky).
After announcing last week he would be seeking a fifth term as president in a March vote, the women spell trouble that Putin could do without.
Since Putin declared a “partial mobilization campaign” in September 2022, the recruitment of civilians to fight Russia’s war in Ukraine has been a lightning rod for tension.
As tens of thousands were chaotically mobilized, a barrage of criticism painted Russia’s army as being unprepared, leading the men to slaughter on the front lines. Among the most vocal critics, were the wives and mothers of those being sent to fight.
In an apparent bid to boost patriotic morale, Putin in November invited a group of mothers, some of whom had lost sons in the war, for tea in a televised event. Activists denounced the meeting as fake. Putin told one mother her son had a purpose and “didn’t die in vain,” while others, he said, died of alcoholism.
In the following months, public outrage became less visible as the mobilization campaign slowed.
Behind the scenes, however, mobilization continued to occupy the minds of many Russians, with the Kremlin receiving 24,000 complaints on the topic this year, according to the Russian-language “Important Stories” investigative outlet.
As the mobilization campaign hit its one-year mark, and with those who were sent to fight still failing to return home, families’ concerns have burst onto the surface again in the form of a new grassroots movement. On Thursday, it was expected the Russian president would use the Q&A as an opportunity to give the women’s campaign his own spin, especially after the group shared screenshots online of the questions they had sent in ahead of his televised appearance.
In comments to POLITICO, Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who is now an independent political analyst, said that the opportunity for Putin to address their questions was a potential “gift for the Kremlin.”
“Putin could have sided with the women and even used it to launch a pre-election propaganda campaign featuring happy men returning home to their happy wives; awards on their chest, pockets full of money,” Gallyamov said.
But he didn’t.
At most, Putin addressed the women’s complaints indirectly when he was asked about the possibility of a second mobilization campaign.
Putin’s response was that “as of today” there was no need.
He said the 244,000 mobilized men currently on the front line were “fighting wonderfully” and that with 1,500 new volunteers signing up every day, there was no lack of new recruits and Russia’s armed forces would comprise around half a million by the end of this year.
Boasting of Russia’s economic and military resilience, he also said there would be no peace with Ukraine until Russia achieved the goals of “demilitarization” and “denazification.”
But, as in February 2022 when he first mentioned those terms in a speech justifying the full-scale invasion, Russians have little understanding of what those goals actually entail.
Meanwhile, the topic of rotating troops, which would allow those mobilized last year to come home, was completely ignored.
“The [Kremlin’s] attitude to the problem is: it doesn’t exist,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik.
‘Spitting in the souls’ of women
The lack of response has been met with fury among the women.
“The landmark moment we were waiting for, for the president to say something, has passed,” Maria Andreyeva, an active member of a Telegram group called “Put Domoi” — Russian for “The way home” — said in a video. “It is obvious that we are deliberately being silenced. It’s sabotage from above.”
Another woman described Putin’s silence as “spitting in the souls of hundreds, thousands” of women.
“It’s as if we don’t exist,” a third said in a video uploaded to YouTube. “How much longer can you continue to mock us, and our families?”
Gallyamov said the Kremlin could still try to get the women on board closer to the March election for maximum propaganda effect.
But he added that waiting much longer would be a risky strategy, noting the language of the women was becoming increasingly politicized and that their protest is tarnishing the veneer of consensus around the war.
Like other independent analysts, Gallyamov said Putin’s answer on whether there would be a second mobilization campaign left the door wide open for a change of course after the election. “He basically said it depends on the moment. Right now there’s no need. But tomorrow there could be.”
For now, Putin appears to be hedging his bets that the women’s complaints won’t spill over into a larger protest movement.
Some of the group’s members have reported receiving police visits at home and being threatened with legal persecution. But coming down too hard on the women —traditionally the backbone of Putin’s electorate — would be terrible optics, even for the Kremlin.