Schoolchildren 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 to Ukraine as winter closes in on the battlefield. Troops have complained they are short of basic equipment – and the message has reached President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and other Russian officials have said that teething problems with supplying newly mobilized troops sent to Ukraine are being overcome, partly by a shake-up in supply chains. But the Kremlin has also stepped up pressure on those who dare to complain – and is increasingly framing the invasion of Ukraine as a patriotic and almost existential cause.
On Wednesday, Putin said that mobilization efforts must be modernized after the partial draft in the fall revealed issues.
“The partial mobilization carried out revealed certain problems, it is well known to everyone, and should be promptly addressed,” he said during a meeting with Russian defense chiefs.
Putin himself held a well-choreographed meeting with the families of soldiers at the Kremlin at the end of November, two months after the much-criticized partial mobilization. But those attending were carefully selected for their supportive tone.
Local campaigns to raise funds for soldiers are underway in both Russia and the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine. One dubbed “Together is Warmer” has raised 3 million rubles (about $45,000) to provide basic equipment and clothing for Russian soldiers.
One Telegram channel detailed last month how a soldier with the call-sign Kaluga in the DPR’s 6th Motorized Rifles had appealed for help for his company of 74 men.
“When we were already collecting orders and preparing for departure, people came to our warehouse in a row, carrying boxes and packages with the words: ‘This is for Kaluga from the 6th motorized rifle!’ Medicines, clothes, boots and even two wheelchairs, which the guys took to the local hospital.”
The channel listed what else they’d bought: “Uniforms, thermal underwear, socks, hats, balaclavas, sweaters, berets, a generator, power banks.”
A Telegram channel in the Russian republic of Buryatia, which provides more than its share of recruits, stated: “From the very beginning of the partial mobilization of the soldiers of the second army of the world for the war, they were equipped by the people.”
In the Chuvashia region, where some of the mobilized staged protests in the fall, Telegram channels said that families had gone into debt buying equipment. “From officials there all they got was parting words and three sacks of potatoes,” one said.
Similarly, a Telegram channel in Altai in southern Siberia posted: “Winter has almost arrived, which means it’s time to collect what is warmer for the mobilized. Volunteers in the Altai Territory announced the collection of felt boots, woollen sweaters, mittens and scarves to be sent to the front.”
In Tambov, central Russia, 8th grade schoolchildren 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 also try to source thermal imagery devices, two-way radios, body armor and even drones.
One Telegram channel posted: “We continue collecting for bulletproof vests,” saying that it had tested Chinese-made vests. “We want to purchase up to 50 sets. We need to raise 1 million rubles.”
Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last week: “Ordinary Russians are expected to help their friends and relatives who have had the misfortune of being drafted. Indeed, they have little option but to cover the deficiencies in state provisions out of their own pockets simply to protect their loved ones.”
Equipping the new recruits – the Kremlin says that about 150,000 have already been deployed – has been a challenge for Russian supply chains that have never been stellar.
Earlier this month, Russian reporter Vera Desyatova of Vesti FM asked Putin about the shortages at a news conference.
“The flow of messages from the fighters at the front line does not stop – appeals come to the military, to the volunteers,” for uniforms, medicines and other kit, she said.
“Who to believe?” she asked. “Reports of the Ministry of Defense or fighters from the front line?”
“You can’t trust anyone. Only I can be trusted,” Putin responded, before adding: “There really were problems, (and) judging by what you say, (they) probably remain. Although I am assured that they become smaller and smaller in volume.”
That may be because the Kremlin has shaken up procurement and supply chains to address public criticisms.
In October, it established a Coordination Council with sweeping 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 arms and equipment, budget financing, pricing, the selection of suppliers, contractors, and the creation of specialized infrastructure.”
Mishustin said: “All our soldiers on the front line, in the rear units, and at the training grounds, must be equipped with everything they need as quickly as possible.”
There is plentiful anecdotal evidence that front line units still need aid.
In one recently uploaded video, a Russian soldier surrounded by five comrades said: “We live in crappy conditions … We had no material support, nothing. We went to defend our motherland.
“We don’t have tents, nothing,” he added, before appealing to the unit’s home town of Serpukhov, south of Moscow.
Another group of recently mobilized men from Tomsk, in Siberia, complained in a video uploaded to YouTube that they had been recategorized as “stormtroopers” rather than territorial defense. “We never held a machine gun in our hands. We just came today to the training ground to throw grenades, but we couldn’t do it as there are no grenades available.”
The Kremlin has begun to suggest that complaints by families and soldiers are unpatriotic.
At the end of November, Putin met mothers of soldiers at his residence outside Moscow, though 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: “As for clothes. I was pleased to hear that the situation with supplies and food has improved.” He also spoke about providing more drones to the front lines.
The Russian leader focused on the heroics of front line soldiers and the nobility of sacrifice. Death in the trenches was better than death from vodka, Putin told the women. “A soldier who makes such a sacrifice has not died in vain,” he said.
Putin also spoke about forming a group to represent the families of soldiers. But one grassroots group – the Council of Mothers and Wives – was pointedly not invited to the meeting.
Its leader Olga Tsukanova said: “The mothers present will ask the ‘correct’ questions that were agreed beforehand.”
A week after the meeting, Tsukanova was stopped by 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 gone very quiet.
Andrei Soldatov, an independent Russian journalist and author of several books about Putin’s Russia, says that one of the bloggers, Alexander Kots, was appointed to the official Human Rights Council “to improve Putin’s direct access to the rank and file.”
Another, Semen Pegov, had claimed in October that officials at the Ministry of Defense had developed a blacklist of people “who are not enthusiastic enough” – a list that included him. A month later, after he was injured while on the front lines, Pegov received the “Order of Courage” from Putin.
Soldatov told CNN: “The Kremlin is using traditional ways [to control messaging] but also trying to deal with the Telegram issue, with the goal of co-opting voices.”
On a practical level, the Russian government is making a concerted effort to improve supply lines while stifling dissent. To that end, Article 207.3 of the Russian criminal code, passed in March, has been mobilized against those accused of spreading “fake news” about the military.
But the Kremlin is also reframing the reason for the war, said Soldatov. “The narrative is getting more apocalyptic, it’s almost a Holy War now, and the priests killed recently on the battlefield were made big heroes on pro-Russian Telegram channels.”
And those crowdfunding efforts can be embraced as a component of this “all of society” drive.
In an article in Foreign Affairs, Soldatov said that despite the failures and setbacks of the last 10 months, Putin has extended his reach over society and the economy.
“Ordinary Russians don’t want to think much of a very possible second wave of mobilization,” Soldatov told CNN.
“The first one was the main source of public discontent and [led to a] total collapse of [the] Kremlin’s information control online. Now, they try to find a way to adjust … They may sound less enthusiastic about the war, but it doesn’t mean they see a real chance for change.”