Schoolchildren raise money to buy socks, mothers buy winter clothes and sleeping bags, community groups collect donations to buy bulletproof vests. Russian citizens are doing crowdfunding to equip soldiers who are sent to Ukraine, as winter approaches the battlefield. Troops have been complaining about shortages of basic equipment, and the message has reached President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and other Russian officials said teething problems with supplies for newly deployed troops in Ukraine were being overcome, thanks in part to a reorganization of the supply chain. But the Kremlin has also increased pressure on those who dare to complain – and increasingly frames the invasion of Ukraine as a patriotic and quasi-existential cause.
Last Wednesday, Putin said mobilization efforts must be modernized after the partial autumn recruitment revealed some problems.
“Partial mobilization revealed some problems, and this is well known by all and must be quickly resolved,” Putin said during a meeting with Russian defense chiefs.
Putin himself organized a well-choreographed meeting with the soldiers’ families in the Kremlin at the end of November, two months after the much-criticized partial mobilization. Those who attended the meeting were carefully chosen for their supportive tone.
Local campaigns to raise funds for soldiers are taking place in Russia and also in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. One of them, “Together is Warmer” raised 3 million rubles (about US$45,000) to provide basic equipment and clothing for Russian soldiers.
A Telegram channel reported last month how a soldier codenamed Kaluga from the 6th Motorized Battalion of the Donetsk People’s Republic asked for help for the 74 men in his unit.
“When we were already collecting orders and getting ready to leave, people showed up at our warehouse with boxes and packages with the words: ‘This is for Kaluga of the 6th Motor Battalion!’ Medicines, clothes, boots and even two wheelchairs, which the soldiers took to the local hospital.”
The channel made a list of other things that were offered: “Uniforms, thermal underwear, socks, hats, balaclavas, sweaters, hats, a generator, power banks.”
A Telegram channel in the Russian republic of Buryatia, where many of the recruits come from, stated: “Since the beginning of the partial mobilization of the soldiers of the second world army for war, they have been equipped by the people.”
In the Chuvashia region, where some of the deployed soldiers staged demonstrations in the autumn, several Telegram channels said families went into debt to buy equipment. “From the authorities there, the only thing they received were parting words and three sacks of potatoes,” said one of them.
Likewise, a Telegram channel in Altai, in southern Siberia, published: “Winter is almost here, which means it is time to collect everything that is warmest for the mobilized soldiers. Volunteers in the Altai Territory announced the collection of felt boots, woolen sweaters, gloves and scarves that would then be sent to the front.”
In Tambov, in central Russia, 8th grade students also raised money to buy socks for soldiers.
Many appeals focus on preventing hypothermia among soldiers who are fighting without adequate clothing or shelter in sub-zero temperatures. But some are also trying to obtain thermal imaging devices, two-way radios, bulletproof vests and even drones.
A Telegram channel published: “We continue to collect bulletproof vests”, saying that it had tested Chinese-made vests. “We want to buy up to 50 sets. We need to raise 1 million rubles.”
Maxim Samorukov, a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last week: “Ordinary Russian citizens are expected to help friends and family members who have had the misfortune of being mobilized. In fact, they have little choice but to cover deficiencies in state provisions, going out of their own pockets to protect their loved ones.”
“You can only trust me”
Equipping the new recruits – the Kremlin says some 150,000 have already been deployed – has been a challenge for Russian supply chains, which were no longer exemplary to begin with.
Earlier this month, Russian journalist Vera Desyatova of Vesti FM questioned Putin about this shortage at a press conference. “The flow of messages from soldiers on the front lines is unceasing. There are several requests that come to the military and volunteers ”, requests for uniforms, medicines and other equipment, she questioned.
“Who can we believe?” asked the journalist. “The Ministry of Defense reports or the soldiers on the front lines?”
“We cannot trust anyone. You can only rely on me,” Putin replied, before adding: “There were indeed problems, and judging by what you are saying, the problems probably still exist. Although I am assured that they are getting smaller and smaller.”
This could be because the Kremlin has reorganized procurement and supply chains to respond to public criticism.
In October, it established a Coordination Council with sweeping powers to improve logistics, headed by technocrat Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. According to Mishustin, the role of the Council is “to identify the main tasks for the supply of weapons and equipment, to deal with the budget and prices, to make the selection of suppliers and contractors, and to create a specialized infrastructure.”
“All our soldiers on the front lines, in the rear units and in the training camps must have all the equipment they need as quickly as possible,” Mishustin said.
Since October, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has led the Coordination Council created to solve logistical problems in military operations.
And there is plenty of evidence that units on the front lines still need help. In a recently published video, a Russian soldier surrounded by five comrades said: “We live in terrible conditions… We had no material support, nothing. We went to defend our homeland.”
“We have no tents, nothing,” he added, before leaving an appeal to the unit’s hometown of Serpukhov, south of Moscow.
Another group of men recently deployed in Tomsk, Siberia, complained in a YouTube video that they had been re-categorized as “stormtroopers” rather than a territorial defense unit. “We never had a machine gun in our hands. We just got to the training ground to throw grenades, but we couldn’t do it because there are no grenades available.”
The Kremlin has begun to suggest that the grievances of families and soldiers are unpatriotic.
In late November, Putin met with mothers of soldiers at the president’s residence on the outskirts of Moscow, although the words exchanged made it clear that the mothers had been carefully chosen. There was no disagreement. One mother even spoke proudly of her son’s death on the front lines.
At one point, Putin underlined that “as for clothes, I was happy to hear that the situation with supplies and food has improved.” Putin also spoke about providing more drones to the front lines.
The Russian leader focused on the heroism of frontline soldiers and the nobility of sacrifice. A death in the trenches was better than a death by vodka, Putin told the women. “A soldier who made such a sacrifice did not die in vain,” he said.
Putin also spoke about creating a group representing the soldiers’ families. But one early group – the Mothers and Wives Council – was purposely not invited to the meeting.
Leader of the Mothers and Wives Council, Olga Tsukanova, said: “The mothers who will be present will ask the ‘appropriate’ questions that have been agreed upon in advance.”
A week after the meeting, Tsukanova was stopped by the police and searched for drugs. A journalist who was with her, Svetlana Belova, was fined 3000 rubles ($45) for publishing “extremist materials”. The Council’s social media channel, VKontakte, has been suspended.
At the same time, influential and often critical military bloggers, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers, have been largely silent.
Andrei Soldatov, an independent 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 soldiers.”
Another blogger, Semen Pegov, claimed in October that Defense Ministry officials had created a blacklist of people “who weren’t enthusiastic enough” — a list that included him. A month later, after being wounded on the front line, Pegov received the “Order of Courage” medal from Putin.
Soldatov told CNN: “The Kremlin is using traditional ways [para controlar as mensagens]but is also trying to deal with the Telegram issue, with the aim of adding voices.”
On a practical level, the Russian government is making a concerted effort to improve supply lines while quelling dissent. To this end, Article 207.3 of the Russian penal code, passed in March, was triggered against people accused of spreading “false news” about the Armed Forces.
But the Kremlin is also reframing the reason for war, Soldatov said. “The narrative is getting more apocalyptic. Now, it is almost a Holy War, and the priests who died recently on the battlefield have become great heroes on the pro-Russian Telegram channels.”
And these efforts crowdfunding can be seen as a strand of this “whole of society” impulse.
In an article in Foreign Affairs, Soldatov said that despite the failures and setbacks of the past ten months, Putin has extended his reach over society and the economy.
“Ordinary Russians don’t want to think too much about a possible second wave of mobilization,” Soldatov told CNN.
“The former was the main source of public discontent and led to a complete breakdown of the Kremlin’s control of online information. Now they are looking for a way to adapt… They may seem less enthusiastic about the war, but that doesn’t mean they see a real chance for change.”