Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has built up the image of a powerful nation with an indomitable leader and a disciplined army, encircled by enemies and fighting for the future of the motherland. Never mind that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, that there has been plentiful evidence of Russian soldiers looting and raping, or that what was supposed to be a bloodless blitzkrieg has turned into a costly war of attrition. Roadside billboards with portraits of fallen soldiers carry the tagline “hero of victory,” though there’s no actual triumph. A popular slogan roughly translates as “we leave none of our people behind,” though the armed forces routinely do just that, abandoning bodies in the mud or in makeshift Ukrainian morgues.
The Kremlin sustains its official narrative with a tight grip. But as the war drags on, campaign aims shifting, there’s one inconvenient truth that even President Vladimir Putin will increasingly struggle to muffle: the men who fail to come home. No constituency is as hard for him to dismiss as the mothers, wives and daughters of soldiers, especially if tempers rise along with widespread economic hardship. Their anger and grief has helped to galvanize public opinion in the past, tarnishing the image of the military and the state. It can do so again.