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Russian presidential hopeful calling for peace in Ukraine meets with soldiers' wives – The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian presidential candidate who opposes Moscow's military action in Ukraine met Thursday with a group of soldiers' wives who are calling for their husbands to be released from the front.

Longtime Kremlin critic Boris Nadezhdin, who serves as a local lawmaker in a town near Moscow, is collecting signatures to qualify for the race to challenge President Vladimir Putin in the March 15-17 vote.

At a meeting with wives and other relatives of Russian soldiers mobilized to fight in Ukraine, Nadezhdin, 60, criticized the government's decision to keep them in the ranks while fighting continues.

“We want them to treat people decently when they are doing their duty,” he said.

The wives of some reservists called up for service in the fall of 2022 have advocated for their husbands to be removed from service and replaced by contract soldiers.

Maria Andreyeva, whose brother is fighting in Ukraine and who attended the meeting, said: “We have been depressed for a long time and are looking for ways to encourage ourselves.” She said she and the other women had submitted petitions and picketed government buildings and other measures taken.

Their demands were stonewalled by the government-controlled media, and some pro-Kremlin politicians tried to portray them as Western stooges – accusations the women angrily denied.

The mobilization of 300,000 reservists that Putin ordered in 2022 amid military setbacks in Ukraine was widely unpopular and led hundreds of thousands to flee abroad to avoid the draft.

Aware of the public backlash, the military has since increasingly sought to strengthen its armed forces in Ukraine by recruiting more volunteers. Authorities said around 500,000 people signed contracts with the Defense Ministry last year.

During Thursday's meeting, Nadezhdin, a member of the local council in the town of Dolgoprudny, just outside Moscow, reiterated his call for a quick end to fighting in Ukraine.

“The country wants peace, that’s clear,” Nadezhdin said. “The country wants this to end. People want to bring back those who are there. We told the truth and it is very important how the government responds to this meeting.”

He expressed optimism about his presidential bid, arguing that his calls for peace are gaining traction and that he has received donations from thousands of people.

“I will continue as long as I feel public support,” he said. “Millions of people support me.”

Under Russian law, independent candidates like Nadezhdin must collect at least 300,000 signatures from 40 or more regions.

Another presidential candidate who called for peace in Ukraine, former regional MP Yekaterina Duntsova, was excluded from the race last month after the Central Election Commission rejected her nomination, citing technical errors in her documents.

The electoral commission has already approved three candidates for the vote who were nominated by parties represented in parliament and were therefore not required to collect signatures: Nikolai Kharitonov from the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov from the New People's Party.

All three parties have largely supported the Kremlin's policies. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004 and came a distant second.

The tight control over Russia's political system that Putin has established over 24 years in power makes his re-election in March all but certain. Prominent critics who could challenge him in the vote are either in prison or living abroad, and most independent media outlets have been banned.

Because of the constitutional reforms he orchestrated, Putin can seek two more six-year terms after his current term expires this year, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036.