A funeral is held in Moscow for a Russian sergeant killed in Ukraine. Photo: Screengrab / BBC / Getty

On International Mother’s Day last week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin assured Russian moms that no young conscripts had been sent to fight in Ukraine, only hardened troops.

“I know that you are worried about your loved ones,” he said. “Only professional military personnel are fulfilling the tasks set to them.”

The next day, his Ministry of Defense backtracked and acknowledged that, yes, draftees had been sent to fight, but they were being pulled from the conflict.

The admission was probably due to the appearance of two videos on the internet. One showed a young captured Russian soldier speaking by cellphone to his mother, tearfully recounting his horrific experiences in the field. The other video recorded a woman in the provinces berating a regional governor. She complained that her young son, a recruit, was in Ukraine.

Putin followed up by announcing that something was wrong and there would be an investigation of how these boys ended up in Ukraine.

In government propaganda, Putin is often portrayed as sort of an action figure: he’s able to flip judo stars to the mat, unafraid to pet tigers and polar bears, skilled enough to pilot anti-forest fire airplanes, play hockey against the best, ride horses shirtless and threaten nuclear war wearing an impeccably tailored business suit.

However, it turns out he’s afraid of something seemingly less threatening: Russian mothers.

And well he should be. Protests organized in the 1990s by an organization called the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee helped end the first of Russia’s two wars against the region of Chechnya.

Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia campaigns against the war in Chechnya, 1995. Photo: libcom.org

Their protests, including one called the “March for Compassion,” which ran from Moscow to Grozny, the Chechen capital, helped spur opposition to the war and to the abuse of prisoners by both the Russians and Chechens.

Putin clearly doesn’t want anything similar to happen during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. As Russia’s war on its neighbor enters its third week, police have arrested more than 14,000 Russian protestors. Though these arrests are numerous, the demonstrations that have taken place across the country are small. Cumulatively they’re not big enough to threaten the course of the war.

“It’s absurd to act like a protest of 100,000 or 500,000 would end this,” said Sasha de Vogel, a post-doctoral fellow studying Russia at New York University. “A protest of 100,000 is only five-tenths of 1% of the population of the Moscow metro area. Is that going to make a difference?”  

She answered her own question by pointing to a recent pair of much larger and sustained mass protests that failed to bring results: Beirut 2019 and Hong Kong 2019-2020.

Nonetheless, to Putin, it’s important to suppress any public displays of outrage now. Russia is arraying troops for an assault on the capital Kyiv, the Black Sea port of Odessa and other cities. Heavy bombing has begun to hit the west of the country.

Artillery and aerial bombing have been hitting the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol for most of two weeks. The apparent bombing of a hospital in Mariupol has become emblematic of Putin’s determination to soften up Ukraine in advance of possibly occupying the whole country.

Russian soldiers also began to encircle Kyiv Friday, moving tanks and artillery into forests instead of keeping them out in the open. It’s odd they are trying to hide the tanks this far into the conflict. Back in 1999, the Serbian army hid their tanks under trees early to evade NATO aerial bombing during Serbia’s war on Kosovo.

Ukrainian officials say their forces have struck lines of Russian armor and soldiers out in the open north of Kyiv. Maybe that explains the change in Russian tactics.

In any event, Ukrainians are trying to persuade the Russian population of the horrors they are not seeing on censored Russia television or reading in newspapers. From their sudden exile in Poland, Ukrainians are phoning friends and acquaintances in Russia to describe  bombed-out apartments, crushed houses and damaged schools.

Russia is mounting its own somewhat awkward propaganda campaign. The Russian Ministry of Defense, besides asserting that Russia is fighting the Nazis, claims that the United States is training birds that have been infected by some disease to fly into Russia to make everyone sick.

Russia has taken pains to ensure that no home-grown news sources counter its propaganda. What the government judges to be “fake news,” once a Trumpian epithet now used by Russian officialdom, can get an editor or publisher or political enemy 15 years in prison.

Independent rights organizations have been banned over the past few years. It turned out that some closures had as much to do with shutting down possible anti-war voices as with shoring up Putin’s hold on power.

Notably, Memorial, the country’s oldest human rights organization, was shut down last December, charged with being a foreign agency. It was an accusation first lodged against Memorial in 2014, the year Russia first invaded Ukraine.

Last year, Russia also jailed dissident politician Alexei Navalny for three years on embezzlement charges. He appeared in court again last month for supposedly stealing even more money.

A Russian marine takes his position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. Photo: Screengrab / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Last year, the government also banned his political organization, which has dissolved.

From jail last week, Navalny called for Russians to take to the streets. “The maniac Putin will be more quickly stopped by the people of Russia now if they oppose the war,” he wrote on Instagram. “You need to show up at anti-war rallies every weekend, even if it looks like everyone has left or is scared.”

There are as yet no reports of military body bags returning to Russia. When those show up will it then be up to mothers to stop the war, assuming it hasn’t ended already by then?

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.