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

The mobile phone of Lieutenant Yuri Shalaev shines a cold light on Russia’s military culture and the alleged human rights abuses it has spawned in Ukraine.

Shalaev was deployed as a motorised rifle platoon officer in late February and was captured by Ukrainian soldiers in April. The videos and text messages on his phone were later turned into a 24-minute 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 shoddy equipment and President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, reveal a deep decay in Russia’s armed forces that may continue to hinder its offensive in Ukraine, western defence officials and analysts said.

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

“There is an illustrative moment when Shalaev films a destroyed column of Russian vehicles and his reaction is not, let’s stop and help. It was drive on. There was no camaraderie. It was every man for himself,” said Dara Massicot, a Russia military expert at the Rand Corporation, a US think-tank. “That is not the culture that an army needs to win a war.”

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

“This is the way they wage war — by breaking all the rules of war,” said Tetyana Pechonchyk, head of the Zmina human rights organisation in Kyiv. “They know they won’t be punished for it. The lower they sink, the more cruel they get,” she said.

The way senior commanders feed ordinary Russian troops into what US defence secretary Lloyd Austin called a “wood chipper” has also shocked the western military establishment backing Ukraine. Ben Wallace, UK defence minister and a former army captain, has said “all professional soldiers should be appalled . . . [Russian] top brass have failed their own rank and file [and] should face court martial.”

Russian forces have had recent successes, using heavy artillery bombardment to beat down Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donbas region and then grind forward against defenders who lack the long-range weapons they need to repel attack.

These advances have punctured the optimism after Ukrainian troops routed a poorly planned attack on Kyiv and inflicted heavy casualties in the first weeks of the war. A third of the 150,000 Russian troops originally deployed have been wounded or killed, the UK’s Ministry of Defence estimates.

Such high casualty rates, combined with reports of how Russian soldiers executed civilians in Kyiv suburbs such as Bucha, are evidence to many of how corruption and Putin’s authoritarianism have undermined the military modernisation he himself launched 14 years ago and brutalised Russian forces.

“A line has been crossed . . . and the Russian military’s culture now derives from a broader authoritarian culture where nobody trusts anybody. Instead, there is a culture of irresponsibility,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based military analyst.

Volunteers load bodies of civilians killed in Bucha onto a truck to be taken to a morgue
Volunteers load on to a truck the bodies of civilians killed by Russian soldiers in Bucha © Rodrigo Abd/AP

It was the military’s lacklustre performance during the 2008 invasion of Georgia that sparked Putin’s reform drive. He appointed as defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, a former head of the Federal tax office, with a modernising remit to clean up corruption, and create a military corps of motivated soldiers.

Equipment was modernised, recruits’ pay and conditions improved, and 200,000 officers sacked. A professional non-commissioned officer corps was also created to tackle hazing, or dedovshchina, where senior soldiers brutalised junior draftees while officers looked aside.

“Russia spent a lot of time, money and effort to improve service conditions. They had difficult discussions in the early period of reforms. They wanted to get people to sign up as recruits and make military service less frightening,” said Massicot.

But the reform drive withered when Serdyukov was fired in 2012 and Putin appointed Sergei Shoigu as defence minister and Valery Gerasimov as head of the armed forces, posts they remain in today.

“They were put in to smooth ruffled feathers. There would be no more airing of dirty laundry, loyalty and stability were prioritised. The NCO programme was dismantled. Aspects of the reforms continued but without the necessary internal and external transparency and dialogue,” Massicot said.

Valery Gerasimov, left, and Sergei Shoigu were installed as armed forces chief and defence minister
Valery Gerasimov, left, and Sergei Shoigu were installed as armed forces chief and defence minister to ‘smooth ruffled feathers’, says Rand’s Dara Massicot © Alexey Nikolsky/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

The result, as military historian Lucian Staiano-Daniels has described it, is “an atrocity factory”. In Ukraine, hungry and undisciplined Russian troops have looted shops and homes in search of food and valuables, and shot unarmed villagers. In one chilling exchange of messages on Shalaev’s Telegram chat group members discussed the prospect of killing civilians.

“The lack of [the army’s] concern for the lives of its soldiers is shocking . . . and directly contributes to the poor morale and lack of discipline which have blighted Russian military performance,” a western defence adviser said.

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

But sustaining that approach hinges on Russia’s ability to recruit more manpower and maintain discipline and morale. “They are asking reservists to come in, saying we just want to check on you,” said Luzin. “But . . . even if reservists go to [recruitment] centres, they are not going to sign up.”

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

“Gotta get the hell out of here,” as Shalaev said in one video as his armoured vehicle came under Ukrainian fire. “It’s just fucked up.”

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