A destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of Kyiv in April 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
HORISHNI PLAVNI, Ukraine — A weathered Soviet-era war memorial stands on a patch of overgrown earth on the Dnipro River’s eastern bank, just outside this city in central Ukraine. In the fall of 1943, Soviet soldiers gathered on this shoreside and faced a lousy choice — either advance across the river or be shot dead by their commanders.
According to local lore, the river ran red from the blood of all the soldiers who died trying to swim across while under fire. The Soviet soldiers who successfully made it to a barrier island on the opposite shore were still far from safety — German artillery killed 30,000 of them in the days that followed. The place is now known as the “Island of Death.”
The memorial to Soviet war dead on the “Island of Death.” Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Some 79 years later, and about 200 miles east of Horishni Plavni, Moscow’s modern army is reportedly threatening its troops with death, once again, to keep them facing forward on the battlefield.
On Sept. 19 and Friday, Sept. 23, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency reported that Russian commanders near the front-line town of Bakhmut had enacted “order No. 222,” which reportedly authorizes "blocking units" to open fire on soldiers who abandon their battlefield positions. According to the Ukrainian military, this measure is analogous to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s wartime order No. 227. Known for the phrase, “Not a step back,” Stalin’s infamous 1942 decree formed “blocking detachments" to shoot "panic-mongers and cowards" behind the Soviet lines.
After more than seven months of full-scale warfare, Russia’s depleted and discouraged invasion force faces “a variety of disciplinary and morale issues that will make it more likely soldiers will flee or surrender, particularly during the winter,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia’s armed forces.
“This war will increasingly be fought on the Russian side by people who don't want to be there,” Lee told Coffee or Die Magazine. “The problem will likely only get worse, and that may require more draconian measures to keep these involuntary soldiers fighting.”
Russia’s newly mobilized soldiers (some of whom were press-ganged into service against their will) have already begun to filter out to the front lines in Ukraine. Many of these novice troops will receive little or no training in their brief transition from civilian life to combat. With such an untrained and unwilling force, some experts expect Russia will increasingly rely on coercive threats to maintain discipline. Mark Hertling, the former commanding general of US Army Europe, said reports of Russian blocking units are “despicable, and horrific, but it seems in line with what [Russian President Vladimir Putin] expects of his soldier-citizens.”
“The dictum of ‘kill or be killed’ is always part of a new soldier’s training, and it is a huge motivator in the back of the soldier’s mind when facing the enemy,” Hertling told Coffee or Die.
“But the blocking unit actions now being employed by the Russians are a completely different approach to that ‘kill or be killed’ concept,” Hertling said. “It’s now become, ‘Kill the Ukrainians or be killed by your fellow soldiers under the orders of your officers and in line with the president — Putin — who has sent you off to war with no training, bad leadership, a lack of understanding of why you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for.’”
On Sept. 19, Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency published a report on its website that included an intercepted electronic communication between Russian soldiers reportedly deployed near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The conversation reportedly took place when Ukrainian forces counterattacked after a Russian artillery barrage, forcing Russian artillery units to retreat.
In the intercepted call, one Russian soldier says: “Not one fucking step back, tell them — whoever bails I’ll fucking imprison.”
A second soldier replies: “Everyone else stays at their places. Remind them about order 222.”
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency reported, “In order to stop the fleeing, [Russian] unit commanders were forced to remind once again their subordinates about the prohibition of arbitrarily leaving their positions, as well as about the possible opening of fire on them.”
Alex Kokcharov, a UK-based security risk analyst for S&P Global Market Intelligence, said Ukrainian intelligence reports about Russian blocking units have not yet been verified by other sources. Yet, if accurate, the news would underscore long-standing morale problems within Russia's invasion force, and perhaps serve as a bellwether for things to come within the Russian camp.
“With the newly mobilized Russians likely to be even less motivated to fight, it can be assumed that this practice will become even more widespread in the coming weeks and months, with the newly mobilized troops arriving in Ukraine with little or no military training, with substandard equipment — and to poorly supplied and organized operational conditions,” Kokcharov said of the recent reports about Russian blocking units.
With its invasion force under unrelenting pressure from Ukrainian counterattacks, Russia’s national mobilization gambit has so far been a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Russians either have already fled the country or are trying to. Videos circulating on social media have shown law enforcement officials in some Russian regions going door to door, delivering mobilization orders to unwitting recipients. The Ukrainian military also reported that Russian forces are forcibly enlisting Ukrainian citizens in occupied territories to join the Russian military.
“It looks like that the Kremlin thinks that they can simply throw cannon fodder at the front lines, and this will allow the Russian forces to seize initiative. Not sure that this will work in the 21st century,” Kokcharov said.
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