After losing up to 100,000 soldiers killed and wounded in Ukraine and forcibly conscripting 300,000 reluctant men to replace those losses, the Russian military reportedly deployed ‘barrier troops’ to prevent conscripts from deserting or retreating. without orders, according to the UK Ministry of Defence. announced Friday.
Barrier troops punish fleeing soldiers by arresting them. Or even shoot them, as the Soviet barrier forces sometimes did during World War II.
Such harsh measures probably didn’t make much difference 80 years ago. And they probably won’t help today. Barrier troops might deter some frightened frontline troops from abandoning their positions. But they do it badly and at great expense. There is no reason to believe that the war in Ukraine will be the exception.
In 1942, the German army marched towards Moscow and the Soviet army retreated. In July of that year, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin issued a decree essentially banning retreat – a decree that barrier troops would have to enforce. “The conclusion is that it is time to stop the retreat,” Stalin wrote. “Not a single step back! This should be our slogan from now on.
Soon each army corps of around 10,000 soldiers had up to five barrier units of 200 men. Between August and October 1942, 193 of these units – together overseeing 38,600 men – detained around 140,755 fleeing soldiers during the Soviet war effort, Dartmouth political scientist Jason Lyall has concluded.
It is not clear how many retreating soldiers the barrier detachments shot down. Maybe very little. Barrier troop work typically involved “catch and release,” according to Lyall. Most of the detainees were eventually “returned” to their units.
Soviet fortunes turned around shortly after Stalin’s order, but it is probably inaccurate to attribute the reversal to the harsh new policy of punishing retreating troops. On the contrary, the German army failed to maintain its supply lines, stretching 800 miles, while Russian logistics improved. The onset of winter certainly did not stimulate the terrible disposition of the undersupplied Germans.
Yet 80 years later this fall, as the war in Ukraine turned against Russia, the Russian media began to echo Stalin’s words from 1942. A Russian state television propagandist authorization proposal a “prosecutor” with five military police to arrest and interrogate “milky”, “childlike” soldiers retreating from enemy attacks.
If the British Ministry of Defense is right and the Kremlin is deploying barrier troops, then the rhetoric of the propagandists has become political. But don’t expect them to shoot many deserters, if any. And don’t expect them to reverse Russia’s faltering war effort.
Barrier troops could prevent a retreat here or there by punishing a few frightened soldiers and creating a deterrent effect. But there are downsides. For starters, barrier units “represent a significant diversion of resources” from frontline units, Lyall wrote. This diversion could paradoxically make frontline units more fragile and more likely to break.
Consider that in 1942 it took nearly 39,000 blockade troops to hold off some 140,000 retreating frontline troops. Now imagine that the blocking units fought the Germans, In place. Could 40,000 fresh reinforcements have prevented the 140,000 tired soldiers from fleeing?
And even with the threat of arrest – or worse – of a barrier or “blocking” unit, demoralized and defeated frontline troops usually find a way to escape from the front. Self-injury is a big problem. “Anecdotally, we often see the rise of self-inflicted mutilation and maiming by soldiers desperate to escape both the battlefield and the wrath of blockade units,” Lyall wrote.
Barrier forces are an inefficient use of labor and supplies. And the Russian army can spare neither at this time. Plus, a battered Russian battalion full of disgruntled and starving conscripts facing a better-trained and better-supplied Ukrainian force is likely to find a way to stop fighting. One way or another.