Putin Is Turning Grieving Mothers Into Propaganda

Russian fatalities in Ukraine threaten the Kremlin’s narrative.

By , a director at ReD Associates and former international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the co-editor of Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations.
Honor guards attend the  funeral of Rustam Zarifulin, 26, who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27.
Honor guards attend the funeral of Rustam Zarifulin, 26, who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27.
Honor guards attend the funeral of Rustam Zarifulin, 26, who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine, in Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan, on March 27. Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a common belief that Russia shrugs off fatalities, given the Soviet Union’s willingness to suffer as many as 27 million military and civilian deaths in World War II. Yet that was an existential war of necessity. Whenever Russia has waged smaller wars of choice—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Ukraine—the Russian public has had much less stomach to suffer mass fatalities. That is particularly the case among a highly influential demographic that has historically shaped the course of Russian wars: the mothers and families of fallen soldiers.

The fatality figures reported from Ukraine are staggering. Some 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers, many of them inexperienced conscripts, are already reported dead after a month of fighting, according to NATO estimates. That’s already likely higher than the more than 10,000 losses Russia suffered in Chechnya over two campaigns of fighting (1994-1996 and 1999-2000) and on par with the 15,000 losses the Soviet Union took over a decade in Afghanistan—much less the 2,500 U.S. soldiers lost fighting in Afghanistan over two decades. The body bags from Ukraine will only pile up higher as Russian forces move in to fight and capture key urban areas.

The question is how fatality-averse the Russian public is when the stakes are less consequential and when the conflict grinds on indefinitely and troop morale craters. From Syria to Georgia to Crimea, Russia has engaged in a string of military operations while suffering few deaths. That has fed a false sense of optimism and swagger among the Russian public. According to the Levada Center, large majorities of Russians still support the war in Ukraine. Whether that will change depends largely on whether grieving families are able to be heard—or are swamped under a wave of new propaganda and control.

There’s a common belief that Russia shrugs off fatalities, given the Soviet Union’s willingness to suffer as many as 27 million military and civilian deaths in World War II. Yet that was an existential war of necessity. Whenever Russia has waged smaller wars of choice—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Ukraine—the Russian public has had much less stomach to suffer mass fatalities. That is particularly the case among a highly influential demographic that has historically shaped the course of Russian wars: the mothers and families of fallen soldiers.

The fatality figures reported from Ukraine are staggering. Some 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers, many of them inexperienced conscripts, are already reported dead after a month of fighting, according to NATO estimates. That’s already likely higher than the more than 10,000 losses Russia suffered in Chechnya over two campaigns of fighting (1994-1996 and 1999-2000) and on par with the 15,000 losses the Soviet Union took over a decade in Afghanistan—much less the 2,500 U.S. soldiers lost fighting in Afghanistan over two decades. The body bags from Ukraine will only pile up higher as Russian forces move in to fight and capture key urban areas.

The question is how fatality-averse the Russian public is when the stakes are less consequential and when the conflict grinds on indefinitely and troop morale craters. From Syria to Georgia to Crimea, Russia has engaged in a string of military operations while suffering few deaths. That has fed a false sense of optimism and swagger among the Russian public. According to the Levada Center, large majorities of Russians still support the war in Ukraine. Whether that will change depends largely on whether grieving families are able to be heard—or are swamped under a wave of new propaganda and control.

For much of the Cold War, the disclosure of military deaths during Moscow’s various wars was a taboo subject. That changed under glasnost in the late 1980s. Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s thinking was to harness the heroism of the soldiers dying in the valleys of Afghanistan for propaganda purposes to counteract the lack of progress in an unpopular war. The move backfired.

As the scholar Julie Elkner has documented, grieving mothers were recruited to give lectures at local schools about their fallen sons’ bravery and sacrifice. But by making the fatality counts more public and putting a human face on the victims, the move galvanized a movement of aggrieved mothers who had lost their sons. Called the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, they marched, held vigils, occupied squares, launched letter-writing campaigns, and held hunger strikes. They primarily sought to end the violent hazing endemic in the Soviet ranks at the time, especially among conscripts, and protested the dilapidated conditions of the barracks. They also pushed to declassify fatality statistics and lobby for greater transparency and accountability among the senior military leadership.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, these mothers mobilized again when Russia went to war in Chechnya in the 1990s. A group of mothers marched on Grozny and even occupied a square for a month, winning the release of Russian prisoners of war. Some later began operating hostels in Moscow to host Russian soldiers who went AWOL.

When the Russian navy’s Kursk submarine exploded under mysterious circumstances in August 2000, killing all 118 personnel aboard, mothers of the fallen sailors demanded to know what happened. Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, was captured by the media vacationing at his Black Sea resort. When he finally met with grief-stricken mothers, he tried to prevent nonstate media from covering the event and blamed them for their critical coverage of the tragedy. During the meeting, a mother screaming at him was even stabbed by an agent with a sedative—a move that presaged Putin’s style of rule.

In 2014, journalists who tried to cover some of the funerals of the 400 soldiers killed in the swift operation to annex Crimea were harassed. The next year, Putin made it a state secret to announce the number of troops killed during peacetime.

The Kremlin is trying the same moves in Ukraine. Still, reports of low troop morale and Telegram messages from Russian soldiers have made it back to their mothers, wives, and loved ones, who are mobilizing and pushing for greater accountability. The government has predictably sought to prevent bad news from reaching older Russians who consume their news from television. When referring to Russian involvement in Ukraine, anchors must call it a “special military operation,” not a war. A recent law has made spreading or sharing “fake” information about military actions in Ukraine punishable by up to 15 years in prison. There have been claims that Russia’s military has deployed mobile crematoriums to reduce the number of body bags sent home.

In an extraordinary move, Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior Affairs even has set up a hotline for Russian mothers to call and retrieve their sons—some of whom were either captured or killed. Ukraine is regularly publishing what it claims to be calls home by distraught soldiers to their families, where they discuss war crimes, losses, or the grim conditions under which they live. While there’s a clear propaganda element here, life on the front lines is dismal, with freezing temperatures and reports of a lack of food. Even those soldiers still fighting may be conveying a depressing image of the war to their families.

But it’s unclear whether grieving mothers can influence the Kremlin. Putin has finally addressed the families of fallen soldiers. Mothers have accused leaders of using their sons as “cannon fodder.” Others protested the terms—and allegedly false pretenses—under which their sons were conscripted to fight in Ukraine. With troop morale sagging, expect Moscow to use all the tools in its arsenal to exploit the families of fallen soldiers for propaganda purposes—as Gorbachev hoped for in Afghanistan. During one fallen service member’s funeral in Voronezh, local officials eulogized the dead soldier by praising his heroism in a “battle of good against evil” and denouncing “Ukrainian Nazis.” He “defend[ed] our country from the evil that our grandfathers did not finish during the Great Patriotic War,” said another official, referring to World War II.

So far, Russian mothers do not appear to be taking the bait. As the war enters a new and likely bloodier phase, the grief of mothers could become a decisive factor in turning Russian public opinion against this conflict. Mothers have long held a privileged and nearly semi-sacred status in Russia, making it almost impossible for the authorities to directly challenge or confront them. The question is whether anyone in the Kremlin will care or listen.

Lionel Beehner is a director at ReD Associates and former international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the co-editor of Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations.

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