The UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace MP, has delivered an exceptional speech at the National Army Museum yesterday. It has many highlights, so I encourage you to read it in full. One point, in particular, jumped out at me. I’ll explain why shortly.
“Most Soviet conscripts hadn’t a chance. Their suffering was often needless. In the absence of effective military leadership, many of their best officers were purged by NKVD for “counter-revolutionary crimes”, while “barrier troops” executed swathes of retreating soldiers, deemed “unpatriotic” for failing to press on in the face of unassailable odds.”
As I read this, I remembered a video I’d watched recently in which surrendering Russian troops complained that they had been told that if they fell back or retreated they’d be shot by the men behind them. In particular, it is alleged elsewhere that Chechen soldiers have been tasked with shooting retreating Russians, including the wounded.
Significantly – as Russia is celebrating its defeat of the Nazis in WWII this week – it should be noted that this is a tried-and-tested battlefield tactic of the Russian army. In WWII they made use of so-called ‘penal battalions’ (or Shtrafbat) into which anyone falling foul of the NKVD (the feared Soviet State Security branch) might be sent. These unfortunate men would be sent to the front of the front and forced to advance or be shot by those behind them.
Many of these are young conscripts who seem to be in their late teens and early 20s. There is an interesting-but-disturbing sequence of voluntary interviews on YouTube in which Russian POWs in a Ukrainian hospital are interviewed about how they ended up in Ukraine. Most say they were told they were going on field manoeuvres for training purposes and were shocked to find they were invading a neighbouring country. They are all suffering from injuries – some life-changing: one has a broken leg, another hands shattered by shrapnel, one has had an operation to save his arm and leg, another’s leg was shot off. A few months ago, all of them were doing what people of their age typically do. Putin has wrecked a generation of young Russian men.
What is so disturbing about these videos is the reaction of so many the parents of these boys when they phone home. They are typically Putin-supporters and berate their maimed and captive offspring for doubting the justifications for and necessity of this war (which you cannot even call a ‘war’ in Russia). Their heads are filled with conspiracy theories and what we would typically call ‘fake news’,
The POWs also testify to the chaos and corruption that led to their failure, another subject Wallace covers.
But as Ben Wallace also notes in his speech:
“While I am angry at the behaviour of their army, I do not in any way remove culpability from the ordinary soldier for what horrors they are inflicting. I am equally angry at the General Staff’s absence of integrity and leadership – which should go up as well as down – and should be expected of all professional military officers.”
Barely out of their teens or not, the behaviour of Russian rank-and-file soldiers has been appalling, and that can’t be entirely the fault of a lack of leadership. Still one can’t help reflecting on the tragedy of a mad President sacrificing a generation of his young for uncertain (but certainly illegal) aims. That this concern is mitigated to the far higher cost inflicted on a blameless Ukraine makes the entire situation even more horrifying.
Perhaps the best option for the young Russian soldier is to turn the tables and shoot their officers instead, and defect to Ukraine. This is obviously unlikely.
It is a small consolation that Putin did not announce the anticipated general mobilisation in his May 9th speech, though who knows what the lunatic has planned next.