In early January, young sports instructor Tatiana took a nine-hour bus ride to Moscow to visit the ministry of defence and demand her boyfriend, conscripted to fight in Ukraine, be allowed to return home.
Her partner is among the 300,000 Russian men called up in a sweeping draft in September 2022 and deployed to the Ukrainian front. Now, 16 months on and with no end to their military service in sight, relatives are increasingly clamouring for their release.
Their growing frustration leaves the Kremlin in a bind, caught between the need to keep boots on the ground, nearly two years into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the political imperative to keep soldiers’ families, the symbolic backbone of patriotic support for the war, on side.
“I was never much into politics before,” Tatiana told the Financial Times shortly after her trip to Moscow, where she hand-delivered letters to the ministry. “But, damn, it’s been over a year. The guys are tired . . . As for us, our physical, emotional and mental resources are not limitless either.”
In Russia, men who sign up as “volunteers” to special army battalions for a wage are usually able to go home after six or nine months. Many convicts, recruited from prison by late warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been able to serve for six months and, their crimes pardoned, return home.
But no time limit has been set for recruits mobilised in September 2022. Statements by Russian officials have gradually signalled that mobilised men are expected to keep fighting until the war ends.
“You feel the injustice,” Tatiana said. For her partner on the battlefield it was “pretty disheartening to sit there and bid farewell to some convict who’s been at the front for six months and now gets to go home”.
The wives and girlfriends mostly began to demand the demobilisation of their men last autumn, a year after they were called up. Around then, Tatiana began searching for like-minded women and joined several groups online.
A sense of urgency developed as women began leaving chat groups with words such as: “Girls, there’s no point in me staying, my guy has died.” This spurred Tatiana to start “kicking up a fuss”, she said.
The women are divided over their goals and approach. Some, like Tatiana, eschew protests and focus on penning letters and petitions calling for their men to be replaced by freshly drafted troops, rather than for an end to the war.
Others are more vocal and demand a halt to President Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation order. Earlier this month, several dozen women took to the streets of Moscow in their largest protest to date, wearing white headscarves and carrying red carnations to a military memorial outside the Kremlin.
They were marking “500 days of hell”, according to Route Home, the women’s group that called the event. Their loved ones “were guilty of nothing but had been sentenced to indefinite slavery”, the organisers said.
The group explicitly opposes calling up any more men. “We don’t want this fate for anyone,” it said in a post on its Telegram channel, where it has almost 70,000 followers. “God forbid anyone has to go through what we go through every day.”
Though criticism of the war is effectively outlawed in Russia, the Route Home march, which ended at Putin’s election campaign headquarters, drew little response from the police. Some male supporters and journalists were detained, with most swiftly released.
“You can see the Kremlin doesn’t really understand how to deal with it,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre. “They are not undertaking serious repression, and this shows they are hesitating.”
But manpower issues mean the discontent is unlikely to persuade the Kremlin to release mobilised soldiers.
The mobiki, as they are often known, make up a large proportion of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, and Moscow is already struggling with troop numbers, said Pavel Luzin, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
The Russian army represents a “hodgepodge of draftees, convicts, mercenaries and remnants of the contract soldier contingent, commanded by a dwindling officer corps”, he said.
With numbers tight, convicts are also being forced to keep fighting after their six-month deals expire, according to a recent investigation by BBC Russian.
If mobilised soldiers were sent home, a new draft would be required to replenish the ranks — an unpopular move just weeks before Putin’s expected re-election mid-March.
Putin’s 2022 mobilisation order created mass panic, with queues of cars forming at Russia’s borders as hundreds of thousands fled the country. “Any new attempt at mobilisation will require more coercion and violence,” Luzin said.
A rotation of draftees would also bring many disgruntled men, who have seen the reality of Russia’s war effort, back into society. “The Kremlin is seriously afraid of a large number of people returning home from the front,” Luzin said.
In a staged Q&A in December, Putin assured the public there would be no second mobilisation. Several women contacted by the FT said they sent in questions about “demobilisation” but the topic was ignored.
Andrei Kartapolov, head of the defence committee in the Duma, last month claimed that such demands did not come from real Russian women but were concocted by the CIA. Replacing the draftees was counter-productive, he added, since they “have been fighting for a year, they have become professionals”.
“What’s stopping others from becoming professional military men too?” Tatiana said. “Ours weren’t. They were cooks, lawyers, builders.” She stressed that she supported Putin and accepted the mobilisation order, but felt that a year of service was enough.
“One per cent of the population is fighting for the sake of the remaining 99 per cent. That’s probably unfair,” said Evgenia, a local government worker from Nizhny Novgorod. “If the government could recruit 300,000 once, it can probably do it a second time.”
When Evgenia’s husband was mobilised last autumn, she was sure it would only be for a few months. “No one in their right mind could have imagined that the government would just snatch them up and then leave them there indefinitely,” she said on a phone call with the FT.
Most of the women seek to correct what they see as a failure in the fair conduct of the war, rather than pushing to end it, and so do not represent a genuine anti-war movement, said Kolesnikov.
Though their sense of desperation is growing, they remain unlikely to coalesce into a broad movement for peace “because of the rigidity of the regime, because everyone is afraid of everything and because society has adapted to war”, he said.
Tatiana said she had received two replies to her many letters. She did not find them satisfactory. Still she did not think protests were the right approach. “I’m not one to joke around with the authorities.” Asked what she would do instead if her campaigns did not work, she said she did not know, adding: “Hope dies last.”