‘They’re breaking the rules of war’: Ukraine conflict fuels Russian military brutality


Lt. Yuri Shalaev’s cell phone sheds a cold light on Russian military culture and the alleged human rights abuses it has spawned in Ukraine.

Shalaev was deployed as a motorized rifle platoon officer in late February and was captured by Ukrainian soldiers in April. Videos and text messages on his phone were then turned into 24 minutes documentary by Ukrainian journalists.

Heavy editing may make the film a biased source, but the fears shared with Shalaev by his colleagues, and their complaints about poor quality equipment and President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, reveal a deep decadence of the armed forces which could continue to hamper his offensive. in Ukraine, Western defense officials and analysts said.

The behavior of the troops also reflects how Putin’s growing authoritarianism has served to undermine the military reform campaign he launched a decade ago.

“There is an illustrative moment where Shalaev films a destroyed column of Russian vehicles and his reaction is not, let’s stop and help. It was in cars. There was no camaraderie. It was everyone for self,” said Dara Massicot, a Russian military expert at the Rand Corporation, an American think tank. “It’s not the culture an army needs to win a war.”

Russian military callousness has been a recurring theme since Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than three months ago. It underpinned Kyiv’s tale of brave fighters fighting to defend European values ​​against Russia’s “orcs,” as Ukrainians pejoratively call the invaders, and their alleged war crimes.

“This is how they wage war – breaking all the rules of war,” said Tetyana Pechonchyk, head of human rights organization Zmina in Kyiv. “They know they won’t be punished for this. The lower they go, the more cruel they become,” she said.

The way senior commanders are feeding ordinary Russian troops into what US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called a “wood chipper” has also shocked the western military establishment that supports Ukraine. Ben Wallace, British Defense Secretary and former army captain, said “all professional soldiers should be appalled. . .[Russian]the top brass failed in their own ranks [and] should face court martial.

Russian forces have had recent successes, using heavy artillery bombardment to bring down Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donbass region and then advancing against defenders who lack the long-range weapons they need to repel the enemy. ‘offensive.

These advances undermined optimism after Ukrainian troops routed an ill-planned attack on Kyiv and inflicted heavy casualties in the first weeks of the war. A third of the 150,000 Russian soldiers initially deployed were injured or killed, according to the British Ministry of Defence. estimates.

Such high casualty rates, combined with reports of how Russian soldiers executed civilians in Kyiv suburbs such as Bucha, are proof that Putin’s corruption and authoritarianism undermined the military modernization that he himself launched 14 years ago and brutalized the Russian forces.

“A line has been crossed . . . and Russian military culture now derives from a larger authoritarian culture where no one trusts anyone. Instead, there is a culture of irresponsibility,” said Pavel Luzin , a military analyst based in Russia.

Volunteers load the bodies of civilians killed by Russian soldiers in Bucha into a truck © Rodrigo Abd/AP

It was the army’s poor performance in the 2008 invasion of Georgia that sparked Putin’s reform campaign. He appointed defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a former head of the federal tax office, with a modernization mission to clean up corruption and create a military corps of motivated soldiers.

Equipment was modernized, recruit pay and conditions improved, and 200,000 officers fired. A corps of professional non-commissioned officers was also created to combat hazing, or dedovshchinawhere senior soldiers brutalized junior conscripts while officers watched from the sidelines.

“Russia has spent a lot of time, money and effort to improve service conditions. They had difficult discussions at the beginning of the reform period. They wanted to get people to sign up as recruits and make military service less scary,” Massicot said.

But the reform campaign fizzled out when Serdyukov was sacked in 2012 and Putin appointed Sergei Shoigu as defense minister and Valery Gerasimov as head of the armed forces, positions they still hold today.

“They were feathered smooth and ruffled. There would be no more airing of dirty laundry, loyalty and stability came first. The NCO program has been dismantled. Some aspects of the reforms have continued but without the necessary internal and external transparency and dialogue,” Massicot said.

Valery Gerasimov, left, and Sergei Shoigu were appointed chief of the armed forces and minister of defense
Valery Gerasimov, left, and Sergei Shoigu were appointed chief of the armed forces and minister of defense to “smooth the ruffled feathers”, says Rand’s Dara Massicot © Alexey Nikolsky/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

The result, as military historian Lucian Staiano-Daniels described it, is “an atrocity factory”. In Ukraine, starving and unruly Russian troops looted shops and homes for food and valuables, and shot unarmed villagers dead. In chilling message exchange on Shalaev’s Telegram chat group members discussed the prospect of killing civilians.

“The lack of [the army’s] the concern for the lives of his soldiers is shocking. . . and directly contributes to the poor morale and lack of discipline that have harmed Russian military performance,” a Western defense adviser said.

For now, the Russian army is successfully using proven Soviet tactics of massive artillery strikes and ground attacks. The same approach used to raze the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1995 was deployed to raze the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

But maintaining this approach depends on Russia’s ability to recruit more manpower and maintain discipline and morale. “They’re asking the reservists to come in, saying we just want to watch you,” Luzin said. “But . . . even if the reservists go to [recruitment] centres, they are not going to register.

Massicot believes the Russian military will have to change its culture again, but reform will come too late for Moscow to achieve its goals in Ukraine or to save the thousands of lives lost in its campaign.

“I have to get the hell out of here,” as Shalaev said in a video as his armored vehicle came under Ukrainian fire. “It’s just fucked up.”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Kyiv

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