Vladimir Putin has met with the mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine, telling them that he and the rest of the Russian leadership share their pain.

The war in Ukraine has killed or injured tens of thousands of troops on both sides, according to the United States, and the Russian invasion has sparked the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops have been sent to fight in Ukraine – including some of the more than 300,000 reservists called up as part of the mobilizations announced by Putin in September.

Sitting with a group of mothers around a table with tea, cookies and bowls of fresh berries, Putin said Moscow shared the pain of those who lost their sons.

“I want you to know that I personally, and the entire leadership of the country – we share your pain,” said Putin.

“We understand that nothing can replace the loss of a son – especially for a mother,” said Putin, breathing hard and clearing his throat frequently. “We share this pain.”

The mothers listened to Putin but their own comments to the president were not immediately shown in the recorded television clips.

Putin said he had no regrets about launching what he called Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine and saw the war as the watershed moment when Russia finally stood up to arrogant Western hegemony after decades of humiliation in the years since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia last disclosed losses on September 21, when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 5,937 Russian troops had been killed. But that figure is far below most international estimates.

The United States’ top general estimated on November 9 that Russia and Ukraine each witnessed more than 100,000 of their troops killed or wounded.

Mother’s Day is celebrated on Sunday in Russia.

Ukraine and the West say Putin has no justification for what they call an imperial-style war of occupation. Ukraine says it will fight until the last Russian soldier is removed from its territory.

Putin’s meeting comes as NATO reaffirms its support for Ukraine, which has made big gains in recent weeks around Kherson – the regional economic hub.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, said the military alliance was “not going to back down” in its efforts to supply Ukraine with non-lethal aid.

“NATO will continue to support Ukraine for as long as necessary,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

(AP)

“We will not back down,” he told reporters in Brussels on Friday ahead of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Bucharest next week.