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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Notes From The Front: How The Russian Army Is Rotting From Within

The deteriorating conditions among Russia’s front line troops, chronicled by a handful of foot soldiers who have spoken out, may explain why Ukraine’s recent counter-assault has been so successful.

Photo of military school cadets of the Russian army marching in Moscow

Military school cadets of the Russian army in Moscow

Anna Akage

Russia’s ongoing loss of territory in Ukraine can be explained by tactical errors on the part of Moscow’s generals, and the outsized ambitions of Vladimir Putin. But no less important — and evidently related — is the collapse of rank-and-file Russian soldiers.

The sudden collapse of Moscow’s units, having ceded a total of more than 3,000 square miles from both the northeastern region near Kharkiv and southern areas around Kherson, comes amid growing disaffection among Russian soldiers who went to war in Ukraine. Much of it has been chronicled through confessions and critiques that have begun to appear in the media and on social networks.

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To be sure, these are isolated voices among the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of those who for various reasons decided to abandon the army. But they are no doubt an expression of a much wider set of circumstances and sentiments among foot soldiers fighting on behalf of Moscow.

By far the best known of the soldiers speaking out is paratrooper Pavel Filatiev, who wrote a 140-page book-length chronicle of the two months of the war he spent as part of the battalion that had crossed over from Crimea to launch an assault on Kherson on February 24.

"If you get the order "Forward!," something serious must have happened, maybe Ukrainians are already capturing Rostov (in western Russia) or the Americans have landed on Kamchatka (in the far east of Russia),” he wrote. “No jokes here, I seriously thought at first that something like this might have happened since we went to break across the Ukrainian border and received an order to capture Kherson, I saw no other logical explanation."

Sent into oblivion 

There are others who talk to journalists but choose to keep their names and faces hidden. Many of these testimonies have wound up in the Russian opposition publication Vazhnye Istorii, which has conducted regular investigations and interviews with combat participants.

Our command does not give a f**k about our fighters.

The stories of Russian soldiers include those openly confessing to war crimes, and blaming their command for the way the war in Ukraine has been conducted, including repeated accusations that they did not know where and why they were going to fight.

Here’s one such excerpt: "I, a soldier of the military unit 51460, Guard Corpsman Daniel Andreevich Frolkin, confess to all the crimes I committed in Andreevka, shooting civilians, stealing from civilians, taking their phones, and that our command does not give a f**k about our fighters, all the infantry who fight on the front line, on the front line."

YouTube testimony

I watched the interview with Pavel Filatiev that came out last week on Michael Nucky's YouTube channel. From the monitor screen, a paratrooper who’s now likely hiding somewhere in France (they say "Europe" about his whereabouts, but a bottle of Cristaline water is visible in the frame), calls to stop the war. He declares that he does not support Putin's regime, and says he has not robbed or raped anyone, and has not personally shot civilians.

Of course, the testimonies of Russian soldiers are important information. But on face value, they can be accepted neither as evidence nor as justification, much less as atonement.

There is a military tribunal for that, not an interview on YouTube.

The Russian opposition publication Verstka, which also investigates desertions and runaways, writes that most Russian soldiers are fleeing the war, not for ideological reasons, but simply because the army is poor, there is nothing to eat on the front, nowhere to sleep or wash.

"There is no need to idealize our servicemen. There are no moral sufferings and anxieties about the war," says Alexei Tabalov, Russian human rights activist and founder of the Draftee School. “People simply have a heightened sense of self-preservation, they want to stay alive.”
Screenshot of a YouTube video featuring Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatiev

Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatiev speaking out in an interview

Майкл Наки via Youtube

​False expectations

Tabalov also notes that the promises of Ministry of Defense recruiters don’t always become reality after they enlist. “Many are disappointed in the army when they see how the military and logistics support is carried out,” he added. “We also have appeals from people who want to refuse to fight because they are tired: they spent three or four months at the front without rotation or leave. These people are physically exhausted and cannot continue their service."

And yet despite the poverty of the army, the brutality of the leadership, and the groundlessness of the war itself, the recruitment of contract servicemen into the Russian army continues. And that includes among some of the most hardened criminals:

"I got Article 105, murder. I was fully fit, but later they approached me and told me that I would not go to war. That someone is needed here too - there is a lot of work. They did not explain anything,” one of the inmates, who failed to be recruited, told the Russian public organisation Rus' Sejdachaya (Russ Sitting). “I wanted to fight, to liberate all peaceful people, and civilians. They are killing them there, the Ukrainians. I don't like it. That's the kind of person I am. We live in Russia, I wanted to serve my country. I was offended that I was left here."

In Filatiev's book of confessions and anecdotes, he confirms similar testimonies of other military men: the full weight of the blame lies with the army command, who first robbed the army and then sent barefoot and hungry soldiers on old Soviet equipment to Ukraine.

​Following orders

"We were following orders, it would have been shameful and disgraceful for me personally to refuse to cross the Ukrainian border on February 24, because I did not possess information at that time and did not know the strategic and military-political situation. All this information should be owned by the big uncles at the top, for this very purpose, the people of our country have given almost unlimited power, trusting, in order to increase or at least preserve the prosperity, power, and greatness of our country," writes Filatiev.

From these confessions we can draw only one conclusion, both reassuring and very frightening.

"All our training was only on paper, our equipment was hopelessly outdated. We are a paratrooper-assault battalion, sent to war in UAZ vehicles!,” he added, referring to Soviet-era light vehicles. “A huge amount of equipment simply could not make it to war, and it was only 200 kilometers away. We still use the same tactics as our grandfathers! With such thoughts I stumbled upon another UAZ of my company, someone had gotten a bottle of cognac somewhere."

From all these confessions we can draw only one conclusion, and it is both reassuring and very frightening: the Russian soldiers who refused to fight did so, not because they thought that this war is not right, but because they are losing. And they are losing because of corruption in the higher echelons of their command.

In his lengthy testimony, Filatiev looks back on the time after his battalion entered Ukraine: "For two months I did not wash once. Water was brought, but very rarely. We saw bread after about a month and a half. We ate some porridge twice a day. The equipment was breaking down every 5 to 10 kilometers and we just left it. Orders were not clear. Where we were going, why we were going, what was the task? It was unclear. We were only given coordinates, and told to start shooting.”

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