Russian soldiers' wives demand defence minister return their men from the front

By Lucy Papachristou

LONDON (Reuters) - А group of Russian women staged a small but rare protest outside the Defence Ministry in Moscow on Monday to demand the return of mobilised soldiers from the front in Ukraine.

For months, different groups of Russian women have organised sporadic demonstrations to exert pressure on authorities to return their husbands, sons and brothers who were mobilised after a decree by President Vladimir Putin in September 2022.

One of the woman at Monday's protest, who gave her name as Paulina, told Reuters that the group of 18 women had gathered to appeal personally to Defence Minister Andrei Belousov, an economist by training whom Putin appointed to the job last month.

Paulina, who said she was 20 years old and had a husband fighting in Ukraine, said the women want Belousov to impose strict limits on how long soldiers can serve before they must rotate out of active duty.

The women's protests are sensitive for the authorities, given that the Kremlin presents what it calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine as having the overwhelming support of the Russian people.

In February, dozens of reporters, including a Reuters video journalist, were briefly detained while covering a demonstration by a group called Way Home.

Paulina said Monday's action was not affiliated with Way Home, which Russia on Friday designated a "foreign agent", a term which carries negative Soviet-era connotations of spying.

She said none of the 18 women were arrested.

Pictures and videos Paulina published on the Telegram app showed women holding signs with slogans including "Please bring Papa home". Several had brought along their school-aged children and toddlers in pushchairs.

No ministry officials came out of the building to speak with the women, Paulina said.

The protest showcases the anger and despair that has gripped some soldiers' families as the war in Ukraine grinds on into its third year, with no end in sight.

Putin mobilised 300,000 reservists in September 2022 in an unpopular move that he has said there is no need to repeat because hundreds of thousands more have signed up voluntarily as contract soldiers.

Putin has vowed that Russian troops - who are currently advancing on some frontlines - will not stop until they meet the goals of the "special military operation".

(Reporting and writing by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Andrew Heavens)