LONDON (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin spoke on Friday to a carefully selected group of mothers of Russian soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine who praised his leadership while he told them their sons had not died in vain.
Tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the conflict sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians have been sent to fight in Ukraine - including some of the more than 300,000 called up as part of a mobilisation announced in September.
Hundreds of thousands more have fled Russia to escape the draft, and dissatisfaction with soldiers' lack of equipment or training or the chaotic nature of the mobilisation can be found across social media. Protests against the war and the enlistment drive have been crushed by force.
Putin was shown in recordings meeting 17 women at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow to mark Sunday's Russian Mother's Day, sitting around a table laden with tea, cakes and berries, and listening to their stories for over two hours.
Putin said he understood their anxiety and concern - and the pain of those who had lost sons.
"I would like you to know that, that I personally, and the whole leadership of the country - we share your pain," he said.
"We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son - especially for a mother," he added, breathing heavily and frequently clearing his throat.
Putin has said he has no regrets about what he calls Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine, which he describes as the moment Russia faced down Western hegemony after decades of humiliation since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
Ukraine and the West say Putin has no justification for what they say is a war of conquest.
'HE DID NOT LEAVE LIFE IN VAIN'
Putin praised the women's sons for defending "Novorossiya", literally "new Russia", a loaded term from the tsarist empire that modern Russian nationalists use to describe the large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that Russia now claims.
The president said he sometimes called soldiers at the front, and that their words had made them heroes in his eyes.
The mothers, from all over Russia and from different ethnic groups, in turn expressed thanks for his leadership and wished him well, before telling of sons who had fought or died with valour in the service of a noble cause.
"The Special Military Operation has brought us together," Maria Kostyuk told him before suggesting that the homes of fallen soldiers should be given a star to hang on the door, as they had been in World War Two.
Most did bring complaints, but they were about low-level issues such as a lack of good clothing for the soldiers, the need for more drones at the front, or the indifference of some officials.
Nina Pshenichkina, a woman from Ukraine's Donetsk province whose son died, said his loss had inspired her to work even harder to make the region - now unilaterally annexed by Moscow - part of Russia.
"Your son lived, and his goal has been achieved," Putin told her. "And that means he did not leave life in vain."
Other relatives of soldiers killed in the war said the Kremlin had ignored their pleas for a meeting and that the one hosted by Putin would be carefully staged.
"The mothers will ask the 'correct' questions that were agreed beforehand," Olga Tsukanova, head of the Council of Mothers and Wives, said in a message on Telegram beforehand.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) - are you a man or who are you? Do you have the courage to meet us face to face, openly, not with pre-agreed women and mothers who are in your pocket, but with real women who have travelled from different cities here to meet with you? We await your answer," Tsukanova said.
Russia last publicly disclosed its losses on Sept. 21, saying 5,937 soldiers had been killed. That number is far below most international estimates.
The United States' top general estimated on Nov. 9 that more than 100,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded on each side. Ukraine does not disclose its losses.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey; editing by Philippa Fletcher)