Fragging, Desertions, and Other Problems Mounting for Russian Invaders

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 98

(Source: New Voice of Ukraine)

Executive Summary:

  • Moscow’s forces in Ukraine face increasing problems with the military, both at the front and at home. These issues are bound to affect Russia’s ability to fight in the coming months.
  • At the front, Russian commanders are dealing with fragging, desertions, and corruption. At home, Moscow has been compelled to offer larger bonuses to recruit more men and has even asked Russians to turn in their privately owned guns.
  • Public hostility is growing toward veterans of the war, who are committing violent crimes upon their return. These are precisely the people Putin says will become Russia’s new elite.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage, the Russians fighting in Ukraine are an army of heroes who enjoy almost unanimous domestic support. Neither of those claims is true (see EDM, April 1). The Russian forces in Ukraine are now riddled with fragging, desertions, and corruption—all signs of the kind of degradation that threatens unit cohesion as well as command and control. Russians at home, despite government polls claiming overwhelming popular support for the invasion forces, are in fact increasingly skeptical of the Kremlin’s compulsion to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill the depleted army ranks and pay increasingly larger bonuses to convince Russian military-age men to sign up. (For background, see EDM, July 13, 2023.) In another sign of trouble, the Putin regime has been forced to ask Russians to turn in their privately owned guns to help the invasion forces. Furthermore, and perhaps even more significant as far as the future is concerned, Russians are increasingly alarmed by serious crimes committed by veterans of the war against Ukraine, many of whom were recruited out of prison (see EDM, October 25, 2023, January 19). More Russians are demanding that the government take action against them despite Putin’s insistence that these veterans will form the future Russian elite (see EDM, March 13).

The most dramatic of these problems is the rise of “fragging” among the Russian occupation forces. The term, which refers to attacks on officers by soldiers under their command, became notorious first among US military units in Vietnam and then within Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Novaya Gazeta Europa, a Russian media outlet based in Latvia, has now collected data that indicates fragging is taking place in Russian military units in Ukraine (Novaya Gazeta Europa, June 14). The outlet examined military court records in the occupied territories from February to October 2023 and identified more than 135 cases in which Russian soldiers were charged with killing either civilians or other Russian military personnel. These figures are necessarily incomplete due to the limited time and territory they governed. Additionally, not all crimes of this kind are brought to the courts or correctly categorized, and the data is not disaggregated between the murder of civilians and the murder of Russians in uniform. Even so, such crimes must be of concern to Moscow because they point to breakdowns in command and control as well as unit cohesion, which threaten the Russian military’s ability to carry out its mission. Most immediately, increased fragging is likely prompting officers to avoid giving orders that might lead to their own deaths at the hands of their own soldiers.

Desertion from the ranks is also an increasing problem. Earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta Europa and other independent Russian media outlets reported that the number of such crimes has grown tenfold since 2023 and continues to rise every month (Novaya Gazeta Europa, February 29;, April 12). Many of these cases are being tried in regions where most assume patriotism is high and where men had earlier joined up to receive large bonuses and escape poverty. In Buryatia, for example, which famously sent large numbers of men to fight in Ukraine, charges of desertion in court have now tripled (, May 6). This phenomenon, of course, is being actively encouraged by opponents of the war and, at the same time, is being increasingly fought by the Russian military police and the Federal Security Service (FSB) (;, February 29).

Independent investigations have found that corruption within the Russian ranks is even more widespread. Some of the increase between 2021 and now reflects the growing number of men in uniform. It may even be the case that the rate of such crimes per 100,000 soldiers has not gone up. Instead, independent news outlet Vyorstka reports that corruption has taken new forms, with soldiers paying off commanders to use their cell phones, take drugs, or even get away with murder. More seriously as far as command and control are concerned, the outlet reports that soldiers are paying enormous bribes to be certified wounded and sent home, go AWOL, or avoid being sent to the front (, January 30).

Meanwhile, the Russian home front displays three additional signs of trouble for the units fighting in Ukraine. First, Russian officials are being forced to draft men they would earlier have excused from service and are having to pay higher bonuses to convince others to sign up. This shift in recruiting practices is placing additional burdens on the regions that are being forced to cover most of the additional costs. (For a detailed survey of this problem, see, June 20.)

Second, some regional officials are now calling on Russians to turn in their privately owned guns to help the army in Ukraine and to defend against drone attacks. These actions signal to the country that the military is far more desperate than the Kremlin admits. These officials say that they very much hope other regions will copy their initiatives (, June 21).

Third, the Russian people are increasingly alarmed by the crimes of returning veterans and by the fact that Russian courts are often letting some off with mere slaps on the wrist (see EDM, April 14, 2022, January 19). That prompted one Communist Party deputy in the State Duma, Nina Ostanina, to declare that such veterans “represent a danger for society.” She also called for draconian new laws to prevent this “cancer” on Russian life from metastasizing (; Meduza, June 19). The Kremlin is unlikely to allow such legal measures to be considered. However, it will be unable to ignore what calls for such a measure indicate about the true attitudes of the Russian people.

These problems, both individually and collectively, are not yet so serious that they can prevent Russian forces from continuing to fight and even advance in Ukraine, given their current advantages in numbers and arms. They are, nevertheless, signs that the picture the Kremlin and its media paints of the Russian military in Ukraine and of Russians at home is increasingly at odds with reality and that Moscow faces far more problems in this war than it is prepared to acknowledge. At the same time, these problems deserve more attention from both Ukraine and its Western supporters to amplify Russia’s weak points while crafting their own propaganda and policies.