May 18, 2017
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
No doubt, strategic errors and corruption at the highest ranks in the Kremlin are partly to blame for the Russian military's stunning difficulties in Ukraine. But the roots run deeper, where the ordinary recruits come from, how they are exploited, how they react.
To the great relief of Ukraine and the great surprise of the rest of the world, the Russian army — considered until February 24, the second strongest in the world — is now eminently beatable on the battlefield against Ukrainian forces operating with vastly inferior firepower.
After renouncing the original ambitions to take Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government, the focus turned to the southeastern region of Donbas, where a would-be great battle on a scale comparable to World War II Soviet victories has turned into a quagmire peppered with laughable updates by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on TikTok.
The Russians have not managed to occupy a single significant Ukrainian city, except Kherson, which they partially destroyed and now find difficult to hold. Meanwhile, Ukrainian civilians are left to suffer the bombing of cities and villages from Lviv to Odessa, with looting, torture and assorted war crimes.
The reasons for both the poor performance and atrocities are many, and include deep-seated corruption and lack of professionalism up through the highest ranks, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who had never served in the army, and arrived in his position only because of his loyalty to the No. 1 man in the Kremlin.
Putin himself, who also has no military education or experience, has been giving orders on operational and tactical decisions during the war in Ukraine that are usually taken by an officer "at the level of a colonel or a brigadier general," according to British intelligence reports.
Still, the reason that the Russian army is reeling goes deeper than Putin's follies — and lies directly in the nature, origin and economics of its military manpower. It's about the Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian tank crew jumps off his tank hidden on the outskirt of Donetsk
Currently, the core of the Russian army in Ukraine is made up of conscripts and contract soldiers from the depressed, poorest "national republics" of the Russian Federation, most of them from the republics of Buryatia and Dagestan. These regions are infinitely distant from both the cultural references and standard of living of residents of Moscow or St. Petersburg. They are, in other words, invisible, and thus easily expendable for the Kremlin.
Renowned Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov spent his entire career traveling around the far-flung regions of Russia, meeting with locals trying to find out why life there is so woefully poor and hopeless. And everywhere he got the same answer: Because there is no money. Last week, he released a new video in which he again showed footage of ordinary Russian towns and cities complaining about budget deficits.
"I travel a lot around the country and sometimes I manage to meet with the mayor or governor and almost always hear the same story," Varlamov says. "I ask why there are no normal roads, why people still live in rotten huts, and what problems they have with garbage and so on, and I am told that the city simply does not have money."
He recounts the sites of his travels: In Omsk, there's only enough money to pay state employees; in Chita people dump the garbage right outside their homes or bury it in pits; in Khabarovsk people defecate and pour the sewage into pits in the street. Even in one of the richer faraway regions — the Krasnodar Territory — even in the new neighborhoods, there are simply no roads.
Varlamov continues: "And now I look at these very mayors and these very governors, many of whom I have personally met, and I see how in a fit of patriotism they rename their towns with the letter Z, how some of them try to persuade their countrymen to volunteer for the war, and how they persecute those who dare to speak against this war," he says.
There are sanctions and reparations that Russia will have to pay to Ukraine.
"They do not take into account the number of lost tanks, planes, ships, and all other military hardware. As well as expenditures on fuel, food, medical care and salaries of soldiers. Moreover, Russia loses millions of rubles daily in manpower alone. Mostly young men who could have started families and worked for the good of the country for many years end up dying in war."
Varlamov concluded: "And all this is only direct losses of Russia, and on top of that there are sanctions, and in the future - reparations that Russia will have to pay to Ukraine."
Yes, as elsewhere, poverty pushes Russians to war: in regions where there are no prospects and hopes, an army contract is almost the only way to earn money. But unfortunately, it is not only the poverty of Russian soldiers, who enter even small Ukrainian villages and are shocked by wi-fi, hot water, toilets in houses, and paved roads to the extent that they are convinced that they have managed to occupy a major city.
At Russia's 77th annual Victory Day military parade at Red Square
Another factor, no less important, is the moral character of a typical Russian soldier. With the collapse of the USSR, the army gradually grew corrupt and violent, hazing and poverty inside the army intensified each other until the conscription became a terrible ordeal for an ordinary Russian, and a whole system of draft evasion developed in the country.
Every family and every mother tried to buy their son out of military service, which was all fertile ground for the growing corruption. As a result, the army became a receptacle for the most disadvantaged and marginalized strata of society.
War is never clean.
The indifference of the state to its citizens in Russia, particularly its distant territories, has reached the level where the President is pleased to boast about rockets but does not have the slightest idea about the people who launch them. The Russian army was built over the past decades to intimidate the world, but it was never on the professionalism of its personnel.
War is never clean or correct, and it could not have been so this time either. The irony is that the Ukrainian army was lucky that the Russians did not arrive with a professional army, while Ukrainians civilians were unlucky — too many have become victims of immoral and impoverished soldiers abandoned by their own homeland as expendable material to wage this brutal and senseless war.
After a shooting left 21 dead at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, we take a look around the world at other countries that have faced similar shooting sprees on school grounds outside of the United States.
The two 90-something European-Americans spoke separately at the Davos summit this week, offering very different assessments of what the West should do in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.