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May 12, 2022: After about a month of fighting in northern Ukraine, the defeated Russian forces began withdrawing and by early April most of them were gone from Ukraine. As Ukrainian forces returned to vacated areas, they found many civilians who had not fled, and wished they had. The brief Russian occupation was harsh and off-duty Russian troops spent a lot of time looting. The Ukrainian government later released Russian cell phone calls home where Russian troops talked about the looting. Ukrainian troops noted that many Russian trucks and combat vehicles destroyed as they retreated carried household appliances and other civilian items that were still recognizable after the vehicles burned.

During the first week of the invasion Russian troops were ordered not to loot or harm civilians, Russian combat commanders were told that most Ukrainian civilians would welcome them as liberators. That advice was quickly contradicted by the fierce resistance of armed Ukrainians and hostile attitudes of unarmed civilians. By early March Russian troops were told they could loot freely, especially if their unit wasn’t receiving food supplies. This destroyed military order and discipline, especially when the loot included vodka and similar intoxicants. The troops were often useless for further combat because so much effort went into gathering supplies. This enraged Ukrainian civilians even more and since the Ukrainians had their cellphones, images of the Russian troops looting and abusing civilians quickly spread worldwide, including to Russia, where civilians had been told that Ukrainians welcomed their Russian liberators.

Some Russian soldiers were more enterprising than others and managed to get back to Russia with a lot of loot, in one case nearly half a ton (a thousand pounds) of it. Many of the retreating troops passed through Belarus, where local and international media were free to report on them. Belarussian police also ignored the large amount of loot being sold in hastily organized markets, or shipped via parcel shipping offices that regularly sent packages to Russia. It was obvious that many of the Russian soldiers brought civilian goods looted from Ukrainian homes and businesses.

In one case some Russian troops looted a farm equipment dealer and managed to get several tractors and other major items of farm equipment back to their homes in Chechnya. All that effort was wasted because modern farm vehicles are full of electronics and, when stolen, the dealer can have the vehicles remotely shut down the first time the thieves try to start them up. At that point all that could be done was to take the equipment apart and sell usable parts.

Museums in some occupied cities saw valuable antiquities looted. These can be reported to international organizations that will put the stolen items on a watchlist to warn legitimate collectors in most of the world that the item was stolen. This makes it more difficult to sell these items, at least for what they are worth. Despite that the looters will find buyers in Russia and China who will buy these items at a discount, no questions asked. There are buyers like that worldwide, but smuggling the stolen items to the buyer is expensive and risky.

The looting continues and that played a role on more partisan units forming in Russian occupied territory despite Russian threats of harsh treatment (including murder) of local civilians. Despite the looting, morale has not increased sufficiently to motivate soldiers to fight.

 


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