At a highly-choreographed event days ahead of Russia’s Mother’s Day, President Vladimir V. Putin met on Friday with mothers of servicemen fighting in Ukraine and said that he shares their pain in an apparent attempt to contain a growing outcry over the Kremlin’s handling of the war.
The televised event at Mr. Putin’s residence outside Moscow came amid intensifying public criticism over the conditions recent Russian conscripts have been forced to bear, including being thrown into combat ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Some of the 17 women who attended said they had lost their sons on the battlefield.
Since Mr. Putin announced a national draft in September, social networks in Russia have been filled with videos said to be recorded by soldiers and their relatives describing dire conditions, organizational chaos, mistreatment and threats of imprisonment if they protest.
Activists said that the meeting’s participants were likely preselected by the Kremlin and had their questions screened beforehand. Some appeared to be government officials and pro-government activists, according to a list published by the Kremlin.
Olga Tsukanova, leader of the Council of Mothers and Wives, a prominent grass roots organization of relatives of Russian serviceman, said no representatives of the group were invited to meet Mr. Putin on Friday, ahead of Mother’s Day on Sunday, despite having requested an audience.
“Who is our president? Is he a man or something else, who is running away from women behind the backs of special services,” Ms. Tsukanova said in a statement on Friday, adding that she and some members of the group have been under surveillance.
The mothers of Russian troops have traditionally played a powerful role in society. In the 1980s, the first real signs of opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan came from soldiers’ mothers. And during the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, they became one of the most powerful symbols of public dissent against the conflict. But protests over the war in Ukraine have been more muted, most likely because of a harsher climate for dissent.
In Ukraine, the first reports of casualties among newly mobilized men came less than three weeks after the draft was announced in September.
Despite evidence of Russian conscripts being thrown into battle with limited training, Mr. Putin urged the women attending the meeting on Friday not to trust the media and the internet, which he said were full of “fakes, deception and lies.”
“I want you to know that me personally and the country’s leadership share this pain,” Mr. Putin said at the beginning of the meeting. “We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son, a child.”
Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February with the apparent hope that the government in Kyiv would quickly collapse. As the initial plan failed, and with Russian forces struggling to hold hundreds of miles of front lines, the Kremlin was forced to declare a mobilization of recruits, which it suspended earlier this month after a public backlash on a scale unseen since the start of the invasion.
For many apolitical Russians, the war had finally reached their homes, taking away their husbands and sons. In some cases, relatives had to supply the ill-equipped mobilized men with everything from socks to drones. Many couldn’t reach their loved ones for weeks, anxiously waiting for news.
On Sunday, Ms. Tsukanova’s organization held a news conference in Moscow where many soldiers’ relatives had a chance to tell their stories.
“They have humiliated, deceived and bullied us, so women, we have nothing to be afraid of,” said Ms. Tsukanova, whose son was drafted into the army before the September mobilization and forced to serve at the border with Ukraine with little prior training.
Yelena Kostina said that her nephew was sent from the Lipetsk region in western Russia to the front lines in Ukraine only eight days after he was mobilized.
The newly mobilized men “had to fight with automatic rifles against artillery,” said Ms. Kostina.
Yelena Kalimysheva said that her brother was thrown into battle without any supplies or means of communication, without commanders in the field.
“They were hit by mortar fire,” and were forced to surrender, Ms. Kalimysheva said. “Why,” she asked, “after one week of training, were they thrown into the woods and left there to die?”