Ukraine’s military launched a devastating strike on New Year’s Day hitting a building housing recently mobilised Russian soldiers in the occupied region of Donetsk.

Russia’s official response has been surprising. The ministry of defence took the unusual step of swiftly announcing the deaths of 63 (later revised to 89) soldiers – the largest number of casualties so far acknowledged in any incident since the start of Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

But just as surprising has been the lack of organised public opposition to this announcement of mass military deaths from the mothers of Russia’s soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

Our ongoing research project uses analysis of words used about the war on Russian news media and social media to examine gendered responses to the war in Ukraine. While our research is still at an early stage, we are finding that the responses of soldiers’ mothers are far from straightforward.

When Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine began, many observers expected Russia’s soldiers’ mothers to lead grassroots opposition to the “special military operation”, and with good reason.

Mothers with power

One of Russia’s best-known and most-respected civil society organisations, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR) and its network of committees provided a focal point for opposition to Moscow’s unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, particularly by defending the rights of conscripted soldiers.

The CSMR and committees across Russia provided free advice on legal ways to defer or evade conscription, and even took the ministry of defence to court to compel the state to fulfil its legal obligations to its own soldiers.

But this movement has changed a great deal since the 1990s. No longer “a coherent and unified force”, they have evolved into a loose network of organisations. Some committees express strong support for traditional values, patriotism and the military, while others campaign for progressive human rights and against militarism.