School children raise money for socks, mothers buy winter clothes and sleeping bags, community groups collect donations for body armor.
Russian citizens are crowdfunding to equip soldiers deployed in Ukraine as winter approaches the battlefield. The troops have complained that they lack basic equipment, and the message has reached President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and other Russian officials have said initial problems with supplying newly mobilized troops sent to Ukraine are being overcome, in part because of a shake-up in supply chains. But the Kremlin has also increased the pressure on those who dare to complain – increasingly framing the invasion of Ukraine as a patriotic, almost existential cause.
On Wednesday, Putin said mobilization efforts must be modernized after the fall partial draft revealed problems.
“The partial mobilization carried out revealed certain problems, it is well known to everyone, and it should be addressed promptly,” he said during a meeting with Russian defense chiefs.
Putin himself held a well-choreographed meeting with the soldiers’ families in the Kremlin in late November, two months after the much-criticized partial mobilization. But the attendees were carefully selected for their supportive tone.
Local campaigns to raise funds for soldiers are underway in both Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine. One of them called “Together is Warmer” has raised 3 million rubles (about $45,000) to provide basic equipment and clothing to Russian soldiers.
A Telegram channel last month detailed how a soldier with the call sign Kaluga in the RPD’s 6th Motorized Rifles had called for help for his 74-man company.
“When we were already collecting orders and preparing to leave, people came to our warehouse in a line, carrying boxes and packages with the words: ‘This is for Kaluga of the 6th motorized rifle!’ Medicines, clothes, boots and even two wheelchairs, which the boys took to the local hospital.”
The channel listed what else they had bought: “Uniforms, thermal underwear, socks, hats, balaclava, sweaters, berets, a generator, power banks.”
A Telegram channel in the Russian republic of Buryatia, which offers more than its share of recruits, stated: “From the beginning of the partial mobilization of the soldiers of the second world army for the war, they were equipped by the people. . . ”
In the Chuvashia region, where some of those mobilized protested in the fall, Telegram channels said families had gone into debt buying equipment. “All they got from the authorities there were words of farewell and three sacks of potatoes,” said one.
Similarly, a Telegram channel in Altai, southern Siberia, posted: “Winter is almost here, which means it’s time to collect the warmest for the mobilized. Volunteers from the Altai Territory announced the collection of felt boots, woolen sweaters, mittens and scarves to be sent to the front.
In Tambov, central Russia, 8th graders also raised money for socks for the troops.
Many appeals focus on preventing hypothermia among soldiers fighting without adequate clothing and shelter in sub-zero temperatures. But some are also trying to get thermal imaging devices, two-way radios, body armor and even drones.
A Telegram channel posted: “We continue to collect bulletproof vests,” saying it had tested Chinese-made vests. “We want to buy up to 50 games. We need to raise 1 million rubles.”
Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote last week in Foreign Policy magazine: “Ordinary Russians are expected to help their friends and family who have had the misfortune of being elected. In fact, they have little option than to cover the deficiencies of the state provisions from their pockets simply to protect their loved ones.
Equipping the new recruits – the Kremlin says some 150,000 have already been deployed – has been a challenge for Russia’s never-stellar supply chains.
Earlier this month, Russian journalist Vera Desyatova of Vesti FM asked Putin about the shortage at a press conference.
“The flow of messages from fighters on the front line doesn’t stop — calls are coming in for the military, for volunteers,” for uniforms, medicine and other equipment, he said.
“Who to believe?” she asked. “Ministry of Defense reports or frontline fighters?”
“You can’t trust anyone. You can only trust me,” Putin replied, before adding: “There really were problems, (and) judging by what you say, (they) probably continue. Although I’m sure which are increasingly smaller in volume.”
That may be because the Kremlin has shaken up procurement and supply chains to deal with public criticism.
In October, it established a Coordinating Council with broad powers to improve logistics, led by technocrat Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. According to Mishustin, the council’s job is to identify “the key tasks for the supply of weapons and equipment, budget financing, pricing, selection of suppliers, contractors and creation of specialized infrastructure.”
Mishustin said: “All our soldiers on the front line, in the rear units and in the training camps, must be equipped with everything they need as soon as possible.”
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that frontline units still need help.
In a recently uploaded video, a Russian soldier surrounded by five comrades said: “We lived in shitty conditions… We had no material support, nothing. We went to defend our motherland.
“We have no tents, nothing,” he added, before appealing to the unit’s hometown of Serpukhov, south of Moscow.
Another group of recently mobilized men from Tomsk, Siberia, complained in a video posted to YouTube that they had been reclassified as “stormtroopers” instead of territorial defense. “We never had a machine gun in our hands. We just came to the training ground today to throw grenades, but we couldn’t do it because there are no grenades available.”
The Kremlin has begun to suggest that the complaints of families and soldiers are unpatriotic.
In late November, Putin met with mothers of soldiers at his residence outside Moscow, although the exchanges made it clear they had been carefully vetted. There was no dissent. One mother even spoke proudly of her son’s death on the front lines.
At one point, Putin noted that: “Regarding clothing. I was glad to hear that the situation with supplies and food has improved.” He also talked about providing more drones to the front lines.
The Russian leader focused on the heroism of front-line soldiers and the nobility of sacrifice. Death in the trenches was better than death by vodka, Putin told the women. “A soldier who makes this sacrifice has not died in vain,” he said.
Putin also talked about forming a group to represent soldiers’ families. But a grassroots group, the Council of Mothers and Wives, was expressly not invited to the meeting.
Its leader, Olga Tsukanova, said: “The mothers present will ask the ‘right’ questions that were agreed upon beforehand.”
A week after the meeting, Tsukanova was stopped by the police and searched for drugs. A journalist with her, Svetlana Belova, was fined 3,000 rubles ($45) for spreading “extremist materials”. The group’s VKontakte social media channel has been suspended.
At the same time, influential and often critical military bloggers, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers, have remained largely silent.
Andrei Soldatov, a freelance Russian journalist and author of several books on Putin’s Russia, says one of the bloggers, Alexander Kots, was appointed to the official Human Rights Council “to improve Putin’s direct access to the grassroots”.
Another, Semen Pegov, had claimed in October that Defense Ministry officials had drawn up a blacklist of people “who are not enthusiastic enough,” a list that included him. A month later, after being wounded while at the front, Pegov was awarded the “Order of Courage” by Putin.
Soldatov told CNN: “The Kremlin is using traditional ways [to control messaging] but also trying to deal with the issue of Telegram, with the aim of co-opting voices”.
On a practical level, the Russian government is making a concerted effort to improve supply lines while stifling dissent. To this end, Article 207.3 of the Russian criminal code, approved in March, has been mobilized against those accused of spreading “fake news” about the army.
But the Kremlin is also rethinking the reason for the war, Soldatov said. “The narrative is increasingly apocalyptic, now it’s almost a Holy War, and priests recently killed on the battlefield became big heroes on pro-Russian Telegram channels.”
And such crowdfunding efforts can be embraced as a component of this “whole of society” push.
In an article in Foreign Affairs, Soldatov said that despite the failures and setbacks of the past 10 months, Putin has extended his reach over society and the economy.
“Ordinary Russians don’t want to think much about a very possible second wave of mobilization,” Soldatov told CNN.
“The first was the main source of public discontent and [led to a] total collapse of [the] Kremlin information control online. Now, they’re trying to find a way to adapt… They may seem less enthusiastic about the war, but that doesn’t mean they see a real opportunity for change.”