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Today, we’re going to look at the war through Russian eyes. And no, not Russian propaganda, where they pretend that Ukraine is just the first step toward Russia’s glorious reconquest of its former eastern European colonies.
We’re going to look at it from the viewpoint of people directly impacted by the war.
The following story excerpts are from the Russian-language Radio Freedom (translated by Safari’s browser translator, hence the funky punctuation). Radio Freedom is an American-funded project of Radio Free Europe, started by the CIA in the 1950s, but under State Department purview since 1972. In this case, its journalists talked with the distraught wife of a mobilized Russian soldier, using pseudonyms to protect their identities. “Vera” talks about “Denis,” her mobilized husband.
He called on Thursday and said that the Armed Forces of Ukraine take Andreevka, break through to Bakhmut, – says Vera. – And they are thrown into this Andreevka almost without weapons – he said: roughly speaking, we go to them with shovels and without artillery support. There is nowhere to retreat, because they are behind their own, who will not spare them either. He said that there were four hundred left of the regiment of a thousand people. Six hundred did not return from assignments. And all this in just two days. And in the official reports we are told that only 2-3 people died.
He is talking about Andriivka, south of Bakhmut, liberated by Ukraine in the the past couple of days.
Yesterday my mother-in-law wrote to a group of mothers and wives of the mobilized 94th regiment that our guys were in a difficult situation, – says Vera. – That they do not have weapons. And she suggested that this information be “distributed” on social networks. And everyone attacked her: you don’t have to set everyone up. They worry more because of their salary than because of their husbands. They are worried that if the names of the rebels come up, they will simply be “missing” and they will not be paid.
Little Fedya, sitting on his mother’s lap, knocks his finger on the phone. The photo on the screensaver is a young man with a son on his shoulders.
“Dad,” says the boy.
– Yes, Dad, – Vera nods. – I don’t want my son to know his father only from photos.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin learned of the power of Russian mothers and wives during the Chechen War, when the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia agitated against Russia’s effort to pacify its rebel province. He did not want a repeat, and has successfully neutralized their efforts by punishing the families of any vocal dissenters.
If they speak up, Russia marks their loved ones as “missing in action,” meaning that no benefits pay out. Family members are blacklisted from working at state enterprises, and their children are denied survivors benefits. As Vera notes later in the interview, if her husband’s name goes public, “he will simply be recognized as an enemy of the people. And then this status will automatically go to the children. My husband is also afraid that this will affect his son.” Her husband is better off dying, for their son’s sake, than publicly fighting for change. This, in short, is why Russians are such sheep.
The concept of “blocking” troops comes up regularly. It’s a supposed line of Russian officers (sometimes the claim is that they’re Chechen soldiers) who shoot any of their men attempting to retreat. I’ve yet to see evidence that this is real in this war. Russia doesn’t have enough troops to move forward; are they really going to waste manpower to shoot stragglers? If this happened, we’d have drone footage of it by now.
What we have seen is Russia targeting its forces attempting to surrender. But even that might be inadvertent. Where is Russia shelling? Where Ukrainian soldiers are. Where are these surrendering Russian soldiers? On Ukraine’s side of the contact line. I’m not saying blocking forces aren’t real, but the evidence just isn’t there.
It is one hell of a bogeyman, however, and if the threat of blocking troops is enough to keep hapless Russians from panicking in retreat, then those stories have served their purpose. As Denis notes at one point in the story:
– I don’t know what it’s fraught with. Although, most likely, I know, but I can’t voice it. Nobody tried it. Because…
– Will you face death, if not on one side, on the other?
– Roughly speaking, yes.
Nobody has tried it. It’s a scare tactic. What we do have is evidence of Russian commanders beating their soldiers for refusing to make suicidal charges or retreating. And rather than fight back—they do have rifles, after all—they sit there and take the beatings. They are true sheep.
Back to the Radio Freedom story: “Vera’s” husband says the sadistic commander of his brigade is an officer named Zaitsev, a local from either Luhansk or Donetsk. It is this officer who sends his troops on “meat attacks” that have killed hundreds in his brigade. This absolutely tracks. Remember, early in the war, Russian officers sent tens of thousands of residents of Russian-occupied Donbas to slaughter. They weren’t real Russians, so they didn’t show up in casualty figures back in Russia. It was all very convenient—until Russia literally ran out of men to conscript in their occupied territories.
We’ve heard repeated stories of officers from Luhansk and Donetsk, now reinforced with Russian mobilized, returning the favor by sending their Russian charges to die in suicide charges. Whether it’s incompetence or intentional payback, who knows.
– So the artillery doesn’t help you?
– Not that it doesn’t help. The command does not allocate shells to them.
– Are you promised help and support?
People die for nothing. People go one way and don’t come back
– We work here in the same helmet. There is no interaction with anyone else. Everything happens very slowly – either the artillery does not shoot, or you have to wait for the shot for a very long time.
– What are you afraid of now?
– The fact that we are thrown there like meat. People die for nothing. People go one way and don’t come back.
Russia is certainly suffering from “shell hunger,” or the shortage of critical ammunition. There’s a reason Putin is groveling to North Korea for help. There was much fanfare this week when The New York Times reported that Russia had expanded its artillery shell production to 2 million shells per year—double its original output. That sounds terrible, for sure, but simple math tells us that’s … 5,500 shells per day. At one point, Russia was firing nine times that amount, or 40-50,000 shells per day. Given Russian doctrine’s overwhelming reliance on artillery, 5,500 is a pittance.
Meanwhile, while this poor guy thinks it’s all shell hunger, it could very well be a shortage of actual artillery guns. As has been the case since the start of the summer counteroffensive, Ukraine is claiming an average of 30-40 destroyed Russian artillery guns every single day. We’ve seen Russia run low on self-propelled artillery, increasingly reliant on old, obsolete, unreliable towed guns.
Not that it’s either/or—a lack of guns and a lack of shells could both be at fault. But this suggests it’s the former:
– Are there more losses?
– We have twenty-five people leaving for the task, six are coming back. Our artillerymen have now stormed. They were told: you don’t have any ammunition anyway, go as an infantry.
Seems counterproductive to send trained artillerymen to slaughter if the issue is merely a lack of ammunition. If nothing else, they’d presumably wait for North Korea to replenish stocks. My guess is that the lack of guns is the bigger issue. Shells can eventually be replenished. Guns, not so much. And without guns, there’s no need for artillery men.
Meanwhile, we’ve often asked why Russia keeps sending men out to die in the open, rather than holding defensive lines Ukraine has otherwise struggled to breach. One operating theory is that no officer wants to report to his superiors that they’ve lost territory. Instead, they keep fighting over lost ground so that they don’t have to deliver the bad news. This story certainly lends that theory support.
– How are your comrades in the mood?
– They’re not in the mood to die for nothing. If there is artillery support, interaction with other units and there is no ammunition famine, then everyone is ready to fight. But no one wants to fight like that. In direct text, they tell us: go, fix yourself there. And we see that it’s not our positions for a long time, we also raise the “bird”. And in general, you can see with the naked eye that our positions have not been there for a long time. And the command claims that it’s ours.
They send Russians to die inside the town because they still claim, to their superiors, that the town is theirs. As long as there are Russian bodies in Andriivka (or wherever), Russian commanders can maintain the fiction that they haven’t lost the territory. They don’t care if they have to lose dozens or hundreds of men every day to keep up the charade.
Now, let’s check in on Aleksander Kots, a Russian war blogger with over 600,000 followers on Telegram. The post is translated by Telegram’s translator, and deals with a Russian in Klishchiivka, just down the street from Andriivka above.
In Kleshcheevka from a direct participant
“A small area on the Bakhmut side is still ours. Several houses in the north and northeast. The main battle is now to the east (Khokhol approached the railway line and is gaining a foothold, we are attacking) and to the north-west (we are gaining a foothold, they are attacking).
[Artillery] works for them very accurately and competently. They don’t spare shells at all. Previously, they stopped working when they approached their positions within 150 meters. Now they charge us even when we are 50.
There is no big offensive with heavy equipment. They work in small assault groups plus a strong reinforcement group. Overnight they build it up in such a way that it’s amazing – from scratch, a full-fledged indoor dugout or shelter for the foundation of a house.
There are very few copters for the carousel and spare batteries – especially at night, a significant part of the movements and work takes place without our supervision. If we take a position away from them, they immediately raze them to the ground, sometimes to their own. And they come in again.
The advantage in art, observation and adjustment from the air is decisive for them. Well, and the dominant heights, the undulating terrain is very bad for us. Plus, their electronic warfare is still stronger, although we also have fun moments for them in this regard.”
It can sometimes be a challenge to work through some of these translations, but this participant is seemingly claiming that Ukrainian artillery keeps working, even when their infantry is 50 meters away. That’s hard to believe, given the nature of the beast. Even 150 meters is aggressive. They may be facing mortar or even grenade launchers, allowing for greater accuracy. Or maybe it’s tanks hitting Russian positions directly. It could even be anti-tank missiles fired at defensive positions. It’s important to note that the people in the trenches are sometimes the least capable of figuring out what’s going on. They see and feel explosions all around, and it might as well be artillery.
Regardless, the bigger takeaway is that Ukraine has that artillery advantage along this part of the front. And Russia certainly helps Ukraine out with their “meat assaults” out in the open.
Here’s another one from a Telegram account focused on mobilization information. A group of family members are speaking out on video, showing some modicum of valor.
Relatives of those mobilized from military unit No. 78064 from the village of Sakulovo, Chelyabinsk region, recorded a video message to Alexander Bastrykin [head of Russia’s Investigative Committee]. Mothers, wives, sisters and children of military personnel are asking for leave for their men, many of whom have not been home for almost a year.
“Please give my son a vacation. It’s very hard for him there too, he’s tired,” one of the women asks through tears.
Relatives of those mobilized said that the authorities not only did not respect the legal rights of the soldiers, but also threatened them with death.
“The boys are trying to write reports, some complaints. They submit a vacation report to them, that is, they write it, give it to them, and they simply tear it up. Or they say: “If you want to live, it’s better not to bother with us.” Naturally, they don’t go after that,” said the sister of one of the mobilized.
The commanders do not release the soldiers – they simply tear up the threatening reports:
“Until half of you lie down here, we won’t let you go.”
Women tried to write complaints and appeals to the military prosecutor’s office and this unit. Those who were able to contact this part received the following response:
“If even one more request is received from you, then your guys will arrive in two hundred.” [“Two hundred” is Russian code for “killed in action.”]
In a video message, the women said that the military was being held in inhumane conditions. The conscripts buy equipment and everything they need either themselves or their relatives.
Another confirmation of the violation of the rights of soldiers and the bestial attitude towards them. The commanders, saving their lives, hide behind the mobilized.
Bleak. So, so bleak.
And the news for Russia isn’t likely to get better anytime soon:
And unfortunately I have to admit that non-fatal, but very painful “difficult decisions” will be made quite soon. If this time they try to shift all the blame onto front- line officers (that is, the “middle link”), then I will reserve the right to move on to voicing the names, decisions and specific moments that led to such a situation. I realize that such specifics will be a holiday for the enemy. I realize that after something like this the channel can be buried.
But maintaining the current order of things is no longer possible.
“The channel can be buried” is a nod to Russia’s ongoing crackdown of critical Telegram bloggers.
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Basically, Russia has lost much of its gains, and we’re almost back to where we started at the beginning of the summer.
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