Russia: ‘Criminals know their service terms, we don’t’

“Criminals Know their Service Terms, We Don’t”

First published at Posle.

In the fall of last year, protest groups made of the mobilized men’s families emerged in Russia, quite unexpectedly for both the Kremlin and the opposition. The groups mostly include wives. The groups’ participants seek to return home the reservists sent to war in the fall of 2022. Notably, they do not believe this should be achieved at the expense of new mobilization. In their opinion, only volunteer fighters should be on the front lines, but not civilians. Let us remind you that President Vladimir Putin, having first promised on March 8, 2022 not to make “an additional call-up of reservists,” later sent to war more than 300,000 men in September and October. The authorities did not conceal the fact that over half of them had wives and children.

Indefinite service

The President and his subordinates were inconsistent in their statements about the exact number of mobilized reservists. On November 4, President Putin  reported 318,000 mobilized individuals whereas in December, the Ministry of Defense reported that it had 302,503 people at its disposal. Both Putin and the Ministry’s Sergey Shoigu agreed on one thing: approximately 10% of them were volunteer fighters.

As the mobilization was unfolding, both the families of reservists and journalists started raising questions about the duration of service for newly drafted individuals. When being deployed to the front, some men were promised that the “mission” would last three months, while others were told a maximum of six months, but the official kept quiet about this fact.

It was only on December 21, 2022, during the Ministry of Defense board meeting, that Sergey Shoigu announced that the Russian army planned to recruit 521,000 contract soldiers; this included the number of mobilized individuals that would be replaced. Relatives of the reservists sent to war interpreted the statement as follows: their loved ones would return home in the fall of 2022, especially since the conscription term in the Russian Armed Forces is twelve months. All the spouses interviewed by Posle have confirmed this.

However, in the summer of 2023, people started to receive messages from their fathers and husbands that there were no plans for demobilization in the armed forces. Meanwhile, the authorities remained silent. In August, the wives of the mobilized individuals launched a coordinated campaign. They submitted written appeals to the deputies of the State Duma demanding to bring their husbands back.

Since Vladimir Putin usually avoids delivering bad news to his compatriots, the burden of clarifying the situation was placed on Colonel General Andrey Kartapolov, the State Duma Defense Committee chairman. On September 15, 2023, he was the first to inform journalists that the mobilized individuals would return home no sooner than after the end of the war.

Differences in approach

The name of The Way Home Telegram channel (Put’ Domoy) is the one that is most often mentioned in relevant publications on the return of mobilized individuals. It is well known because women who are the members have been active in public. However, they do not have the support of all the relatives of the mobilized individuals.

Apart from those who have been actively advocating for the civil rights of the mobilized soldiers for more than two months, some activists opt for a neutral and apolitical dialogue with the authorities. Some examples of the latter include the Let’s Bring Our Guys Home group (Vernyom Rebiat) or Women’s Home Front (Jenskiy Tyl), whose stated goal is, among other things, “to support the Russian Army.”

The founder of the Let’s Bring Our Guys Home group, Olga Katz from Novosibirsk, whose brother Alexander had been mobilized, actively called for signing and spreading an appeal to establish fair military service terms for the mobilized individuals. She later traveled to Moscow to submit signatures in support of this appeal to the President’s administration.

Olga was a proponent of open dialogue with the authorities and disapproved of her fellow activists who preferred different methods. “Following the impulsive actions of female activists from another group, joined by Navalny’s supporters and provocateurs who have proposed rallies and shooting commanders, our hands are now tied. Hardly any options are currently available to us,” Olga lamented on November 20, 2023.

The decision to keep the mobilized individuals at the front until the end of the war, made by Putin himself, did not particularly impress her. The military correspondent Alexander Sladkov was the one to convey this information in a meeting between war correspondents and President Putin earlier in the summer. Katz had high hopes for the President’s Direct Line which took place on December 14, 2023. In her opinion, that was the time when Putin was bound to announce the terms of military service for the mobilized individuals. On November 22, she learned that her brother died at the front.

“He was just 25 years old, he never had time to get married and have children, but he was very loved and appreciated by his family, friends, and colleagues. He will be forever in our hearts. My heart is broken. I’m done.” This was Olga Katz’s last message in the Let’s Bring Our Guys Home group.

There are also associations of families entirely supportive of the Kremlin. Some of these closely resemble pro-government information media. For instance, the Katyusha channel is actively supported by Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent Kremlin propaganda agent. The Katyushas, as they call themselves, recorded an appeal to other wives of mobilized individuals, in which they aim to “sell” to their unfortunate sisters that “the organized protests fit into a long-known scheme by runaway extremists and Western special services.”

From the “commoner agenda” to open protests

In the summer and early fall of last year, statements in various groups of families of the mobilized individuals used to begin with words of “support for the special military operation.” This was the case even on The Way Home Telegram channel. Mariya Andreyeva, a resident of Moscow whose husband was drafted in October 2022, is one of the most active participants who rallied around this channel. Reflecting on the initial stage of her activism, she states that, when the wives of mobilized individuals used to knock on the office doors of deputies and file requests at the time, they had a very peaceful and rather “commoner agenda.”

After it became clear that the authorities had no intention of discussing the fate of those sent to the frontlines, some family members had a change of heart. This happened even for those who were moderate patriots. For example, as Svetlana S. from a major city on the Volga River shared with Posle: before the war, she and her husband had always supported Vladimir Putin when it came to foreign policy. Upon receiving the draft notice, she experienced a certain shock. Nevertheless, the family did not consider evading the draft at the time. The motive, however, was not patriotism but fear of going to prison.

“Now I think I should have been smarter about it,” Svetlana admits. “So many people didn’t go to serve, they have no problem, they just keep living as before. Thank God, my husband didn’t end up on the frontlines. He serves in the rear, but the fact that they don’t intend to let them go at all is outrageous. Even criminals sent to the front from prison know their service terms, whereas we don’t. What kind of government is this? I don’t even have the words. And we no longer trust neither Putin nor Shoigu.”

On November 12, 2023 a Manifesto appeared in The Way Home (Put’ Domoy) channel, its description no longer mentioning “the support for the special military operation” but demanding to “respect the Constitution and human rights, including those of military personnel.” The document also stated that its authors advocate for the “right to social protest and public gatherings.”

When asked how she changed her opinion on Vladimir Putin since the start of the war, Mariya Andreyeva responded, “My attitude towards the President changed a long time ago. I believe that his current term is full of anti-people and harmful decisions and bills. The start of the special military operation came as a shock to me. The invasion of Ukraine, as I believe and to put it mildly, was a crucial mistake. I think it was unacceptable towards a country so close to us as Ukraine, as many Russian people have relatives there. It was unacceptable.”

Some expert observers note that the emergence of new protest groups in Russia indicates the following: once loyalists are now joining the opposition. A new trend is emerging in Russian politics, which other people might join.

This is especially noticeable in the case of relatives of mobilized individuals who have transitioned from loyalty to the actual defiance of the “special military operation.” They started openly denouncing any new mobilization, even if it would bring their loved ones home. Observers note that the degree of opposition within this group increased noticeably in a matter of months.

It’s worth mentioning that on January 13, 2024, the police’s attempt to suppress solitary picketing in the center of Moscow by Mariya Andreyeva elicited a negative reaction even in the moderate Women’s Homefront channel (Jenskiy Tyl). The channel’s authors characterized the law enforcement response as cruel and expressed their solidarity with Mariya.

Another publication in this channel indicates a growing dissatisfaction among the relatives of mobilized individuals with the official authorities. It is dedicated to the talking points voiced by General Deputy Andrei Kartapolov in an interview with the Fontanka newspaper on January 9, 2024. The authors of the channel were outraged that Kartapolov referred to the relatives and loved ones of mobilized individuals trying to seek justice as “adversaries” and to their actions as “best practices of CIA and Information and Psychological Operations Center of Ukraine.” Activists called upon their supporters to file complaints against Kartapolov with the ethics committee of the United Russia Party that got him elected to parliament.

“When I saw the interview, it was hard to believe it. Some of us still don’t want to believe it. My fellow activists appealed to them (the State Duma Defense Committee). People saw us there. They know well who we are. We are the wives of mobilized men, and he dares to call our activities “best practices of CIA and Information and Psychological Operations Center of Ukraine.” We don’t even know what these words stand for. I have started doubting our leaders. I don’t even want to put into words the thoughts that come to my mind,” Svetlana S. said with indignation.

Televised dialogue

Perhaps, when planning the Christmas Eve meeting of President Putin with the families of those who had died in the war, his assistants meant to quell the growing discontent among the relatives of the mobilized reservists.

At the event, the wives of mobilized individuals had an extremely disheartening experience. The President, conversing with people who had him to blame for the loss of their husbands and fathers, was talking about family values with a smile on his face. It was evident that the loved ones of those in the trenches could not help but project the whole situation onto themselves in one way or another.

Svetlana S. admits that she did not follow the TV reports about the meeting — “I can’t stand to watch it. There were mothers and widows of those who died. Orphaned children also were there. It breaks my heart. I can’t… Putin promised that only professional soldiers would fight. My husband, for instance, never did his military service. He was not conscripted as a student, he later moved to another city, so they must have forgotten about him. They only put him on military records at work after he turned 30. The widows of mobilized individuals, having to listen to Putin talking about the heroism of their loved ones. It’s appalling.”

Mariya Andreyeva had even more negative feelings about Putin’s interaction with the relatives of the deceased: “This meeting was all about hypocrisy, lies, and falsehood. Putin had a smile on his face. It’s just glaring cynicism. I don’t understand why he had to do all this, showing the complete lack of empathy for human grief?”

She also recalled another meeting of the head of state with the mothers of those who had died on the battlefield. It took place on November 25, 2023. Vladimir Putin then uttered the famous phrase about how death in war gives special meaning to the lives of Russian citizens.

“It is unclear whether some people have even lived at all. And if they die — from vodka or something else — no one would even notice […] it also slips through the cracks somehow: whether or not the person lived. Don’t you understand that your son lived? His goal was reached. His life was meaningful. He lived it for the purpose he aspired to. This means that he did not leave his life in vain. You understand what I mean, don’t you?” These were Putin’s words to the mothers of the deceased soldiers at his residence near Moscow.

According to Andreyeva, the President’s remark illustrates that he does not consider the possibility of a Russian man living a happy life with his family and raising children. “It’s awful our President has such a vision for the lives of the Russian Federation’s citizens. With such an attitude toward human life, we stand no chance of survival,” Mariya concludes.

Step by step

The most active family members of mobilized individuals do not intend to create any official public organization in the future, as it would be easier for the authorities to fight that compared to a network horizontal structure. Currently, activists continue to carry on public protests with complaints to various authorities, calling for a legal solution that would determine the terms of service for those who are mobilized. They don’t have a long-term plan. Some intend to continue taking to the streets, while others write appeals to various authorities, and hold meetings with officials and deputies.

“Before, I was afraid to write to someone asking about my husband’s service terms. The letter could make it worse — what if they sent him to the frontlines? Now I’m no longer afraid. People from where he is are sent to the frontlines anyways. Recently, they were informed they would only get to go home after victory. I wonder what exactly they mean by that. How many more people will have to die while the generals and deputies from Moscow keep insulting us? There is this activity we came up with. I went for the first time to lay flowers at our main monument in memory of those who died for peace during the Great Patriotic War. I even put a white scarf on. They did understand back then what they were fighting for, whereas now we don’t really understand it,” admits Svetlana.

Families of the mobilized reservists seize any opportunity to promote their agenda. The first time they participated in a public protest was in Moscow on November 7, 2023. It was an authorized rally of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation on the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Gennady Zyuganov, the organizer of the event, even talked to them at the time.

Now The Way Home activists are leveraging the ongoing Russian presidential election campaign. They actively cooperated with Boris Nadezhdin, who met with them publicly. The conversation took place in Moscow on January 11, 2024 with a large number of journalists present. After Nadezhdin was removed from the election race, the wives of the mobilized visited another candidate, Vladislav Davankov (New People party), in his Moscow office on February 11, 2024. The activists left their requests with the candidate’s assistants. It is clear that even after the March 15–17 presidential elections the relatives of the fighting reservists will continue to try to bring their loved ones home.

The fact that in January and February the police did not carry out mass arrests of the people who took part in the events organized by The Way Home group in different cities, such as laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other memorials, confirms that at the moment the authorities have not completely decided how to deal with their new opponents.

On the one hand, they are using conventional methods of discrediting disloyal citizens: prohibiting street protest activities under the pretext of anti-COVID restrictions, unleashing their propagandists and bots, and conducting intervention conversations with both men on the frontlines and their wives at home. In February, Russian police detained journalists who gathered to cover protests by mobilized soldiers’ relatives.

On the other hand, the Kremlin is hesitant to take further steps. The solitary pickets in Moscow on January 6 were not suppressed, as would be the case with the actions of any other protest groups. The laying of flowers in January and February at the Eternal Flame memorial in Moscow, on the Field of Mars in St. Petersburg, and in other cities, which can be regarded as public events, took place without detention of the activists. These actions did not cause criminal or administrative proceedings on political grounds, like with the cases that the authorities fabricate against their opponents on a massive scale.The Kremlin clearly fears crossing the line of safe pressure on the relatives of armed military men performing combat tasks on the frontlines.

It is not clear today whether the activists’ efforts will lead to the emergence of a mass protest movement. There is a potential social base for such a movement, as about 300,000 mobilized individuals are currently on the frontlines and about a million of their relatives and friends are in the rear. 

The Kremlin might not fear as much the mutinies of military personnel — like the one led by Yevgeny Prigozhin in the summer of 2023 — as a decline in the electorate’s political support in case of repression against the wives and mothers of reservists at war. Clearly, the repression might cause a backlash, similar to the one in September 2022, which followed the announcement of the mobilization of military reservists.