A Russian presidential hopeful opposing Moscow’s military action in Ukraine met Thursday with a group of soldiers’ wives who are demanding that their husbands be discharged from the front line.

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

Speaking at a meeting with wives and other relatives of Russian servicemen who were mobilized to fight in Ukraine, Nadezhdin, 60, criticized the government’s decision to keep them in the ranks as long as the fighting continues.

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“We want them to treat people who are doing their duty in a decent way,” he said.

Wives of some of the reservists who were called up for service in the fall of 2022 have campaigned for their husbands to be discharged from duty and replaced with contract soldiers.

Maria Andreyeva, whose brother is fighting in Ukraine and who took part in the meeting, said that “we have been depressed for a long time and are looking for ways to spur ourselves.” She said she and the other women have been filing petitions, picketing government buildings and taking other action.

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Their demands have been stonewalled by the government-controlled media, and some pro-Kremlin politicians have sought to cast them as Western stooges — accusations the women angrily rejected.

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

Aware of the public backlash, the military since then has increasingly sought to bolster the forces in Ukraine by enlisting more volunteers. The authorities claimed that about 500,000 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, reaffirmed his call for a quick end to the fighting in Ukraine.

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

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

“I will keep moving for as long as I feel public support,” he said. “Millions of people are supporting me.”

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

Another presidential hopeful who called for peace in Ukraine, former regional legislator Yekaterina Duntsova, was barred from the race last month after the Central Election Commission refused to accept her nomination, citing technical errors in her paperwork.

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The election commission already has approved three candidates for the ballot who were nominated by parties represented in parliament and therefore weren’t required to collect signatures: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party.

All three parties have been largely supportive of the Kremlin’s policies. Kharitonov had run against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

The tight control over Russia’s political system that Putin has established during 24 years in power makes his reelection in March all but assured. Prominent critics who could challenge him on the ballot are either in jail or living abroad, and most independent media have been banned.

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

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