Attrition: Russian Veterans Of Ukraine Cause Problems

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April 28, 2022: Since 2015 it has been a crime to publicize Russian combat casualties, even if they were peacetime losses. That was the year Russia sent a large force to Syria to prevent their longtime Syrian ally and arms purchaser, the Assad government, from being overthrown. There were also casualties in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russia had declared all the fighters to be only ethnic Russian Ukrainians or volunteers from Russia. The reality was that a growing number of the fighters were Russian soldiers, some of them conscripts who were not supposed to be in a combat zone. Keeping these deaths secret in Russia only angered the families of the dead. The anger increased when the government eventually sent them a coffin containing their dead son. The situation was worse in Donbas because the Ukrainians often captured Russians or discovered the names of Russian soldiers who died there. Ukraine would publicize these deaths and POWs (Prisoners of War) and families would hear from Ukraine that their son was dead before Russia got around to admitting it. Families who contacted their government were told such information was secret.

This problem got much worse after Russia sent over 150,000 troops into Ukraine and, by Ukrainian count, over 20,000 Russians were killed after two months of fighting. The dead and wounded now include a growing number of Russian sailors killed or wounded in the Black Sea. Russia managed to keep this out of the news until April 14th when the destroyer/cruiser Moskva was destroyed off Odessa. Moskva was the flagship of the Black Sea fleet and carried a crew of 510. Moskva was the third Russian warship destroyed by the Ukrainians since March and the largest. Most of the families of the crew were anxious to discover if their sons were alive. The government responded that such information was a state secret and that a new law had made it a criminal offense to disparage Russian war efforts. This was aimed at angry families seeking information and getting nothing but threats from their government. The disparagement law has been used against journalists and Internet-based commentators but not, apparently, any angry and vocal parents of dead soldiers or sailors.

The Moskva losses were particularly embarrassing for the government because it created a lot of unwanted attention to the composition of crews and the number killed or wounded on the lost ships. With a crew of 510, the Moskva casualties were apparently a lot larger than the government initially indicated. Families knew if their sons were on a particular ship and those young conscript sailors usually had low-skill jobs on the ships because conscripts served only 12 months, which was not enough time to train them and get some benefit from that training before the year was up. This was apparently a major reason why the Moskva was lost. The Moskva had four separate systems, one electronic, to protect it from missile attacks. That should have protected the Moskva from the two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles. At least one of those missiles hit the ship. This was confirmed when high-resolution digital photos of the Moskva became widely available. These pictures showed the condition of the ship after it was hit and before it sank while being towed back to its home port in Crimea. The photos clearly show at least one of the large anti-ship missiles carried on the deck in storage/launch canisters exploded and caused significant fires. This indicates two problems with the crew. One is that there were not enough sailors aboard who could maintain and/or operate all the anti-missile systems efficiently. The second problem was that the crew did not have enough sailors trained in damage control procedures to deal with the fire that did not sink the ship but disabled it to the point where the crew was ordered to abandon ship. There were photos of the crew using the life boats but no indication of how many dead or missing crew were left behind. Apparently the government was uncertain about crew losses until the survivors were back in Crimea and a count could be taken. Survivors were told not to contact their families but some did anyway. No families notified like this were prosecuted, especially if they added that they hoped the war against those fascist Ukrainians would soon be over. Some families did criticize the Russian role in the war but punishment for that has not been frequent or much publicized.

Suppressing the anger of families who lost sons in a foreign war does not end well, as Russia learned in the 1980s when the Soviet Union still existed and there were similar laws regarding notification of families and criticism of the war in Afghanistan. Russia lost 15,000 dead during the eight years of Afghan fighting back then and it is common knowledge that more than that have been lost during two months in Ukraine.

The Russian government no longer speaks of “liberating” all of Ukraine but a senior Russian general has announced that Donbas and the Ukrainian Black Sea coast will be taken. That better happen soon because more and more veterans of the Ukrainian war are returning home. Many of them were badly wounded and released from service with warnings to keep quiet about what happened. For most veterans silence is not an option and the strict Soviet-era rules and all-powerful KGB no longer exist. These veterans were born after the Soviet Union collapsed and have no nostalgia for the lost empire, especially after facing those “fascist” Ukrainians and discovering that the Russian liberators were considered the Nazi invaders by Ukrainians who were not fighting for NATO but to maintain their independence. Not all the Russian veterans agreed with that but they could not deny what they encountered and it was news that finds more and more believers inside Russia.

 


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