Kremlin Plays a Dangerous Game in Ignoring Protests Against Front-Line Conditions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 188


In recent weeks, Russia has witnessed increased reports of violence against military personnel. The violence includes demonstrative retaliation against “refuseniks” (Russians who avoid conscription), “meat assaults” (human wave tactics used by the Russian military in Ukraine), and attempts to send wounded soldiers to the Ukrainian front. Those who refuse to go on the attack are subjected to particularly cruel methods of coercion. For example, at the beginning of December, Russian soldier Gennadiy Kiskorov refused to return to the front after being wounded. As a result, he was tied to a tree for two days in the cold and rain. His brother, Semyon Kiskorov, stated that, after two days of torture, Gennadiy relented and agreed to return to duty (Current Time TV, December 5). These increasingly repressive methods are stirring up discontent, not only among the domestic population but within the Russian military’s ranks as well. In ignoring these growing protests, the Kremlin may be setting itself up for widespread unrest, especially as the Russian leadership considers announcing another wave of mobilization.

The Kremlin continues to send recruits to the front without officially deciding whether to declare a second wave of mobilization (see EDM, November 27). Independent media reports that recruitment raids are being regularly organized. In violation of the law, Russian military officials are even recruiting students regardless of whether they have completed their studies or their health categorizes them as unfit for service. Recruits often have no opportunity to challenge the summons, as they are sent to the front only one day after receiving the order, which is also illegal (, December 2).

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) changed the procedure for medical examinations upon recruitment into the army and “consideration of experience in military operations” to inflate conscription numbers. The MoD declared that it intends to exclude diseases “that do not have a significant impact on the ability to perform military duties” from the list of medical exemptions for service (, December 4). A full list of exceptions is not yet publicly available. In the meantime, Russian media reports that even soldiers severely crippled by war have been declared fit for service and organized into “disabled” regiments. According to relatives of these soldiers, those mobilized after injuries and illness are sent to so-called “convalescent regiments” and returned to the front in assault units without passing medical examinations or receiving adequate medical care (, December 6).

Many relatives of mobilized Russian soldiers believe that the military is using their loved ones as “cannon fodder” to replace heavy losses in manpower (see EDM, December 7). They refer to these operations as “meat assaults,” in which troops are thrown mindlessly into “human wave” assaults regardless of heavy losses. Relatives say that such assaults are frequently being employed in the Avdiivka direction, which Russian commanders have fixated on capturing to give President Vladimir Putin a “victory” before year’s end (Ukrainska Pravda, November 18).

The relatives of mobilized soldiers recently sent a collective complaint to Putin. They expressed their concerns that draftees have been living in front-line trenches for more than ten months, constantly under fire. After the initiation of offensive operations in November, the Russian High Command issued an order to send moderately wounded soldiers back to the front as part of assault units. Most personnel on the front have had no leave since the beginning of mobilization (, December 5; see EDM, December 7).

The hazing of newer recruits by older veterans has also become a problem, creating serious division within Russian units. Hazing has always existed within the Russian army. Previously, however, there was no clear division of the military into camps of “executioners and victims.” This has changed. Yesterday’s newcomers have now become “old-timers” themselves with the right to harass new arrivals. The current culture of hazing has escalated, and the division in the army has taken a much stricter form. As some soldiers have forcefully sent others to their deaths, it does not allow “victims” to become “executioners” in the future, as happened with “more traditional” hazing. This reality contributes to the divisions remaining unchanged and in some senses intensifying. Even today, there are regular occurrences of Russian soldiers shooting their commanders for bad jokes (, December 4). Cruelty also comes in the form of military leaders placing “refusniks” and “deserters” into pits for two to three days at a time. On some occasions, these pits have been dug right along the front under enemy fire. Additionally, Russian troops say that, in some units, an informal “military police” has been formed by soldiers close to commanders who beat and punish their colleagues (, December 5). It is possible that, under these conditions, the mobilized will eventually decide to fight back against their commanders and those who sent them to war.

Discontent among relatives of the mobilized is growing in parallel with increased divisions within the military. An example of the realities behind this discontent comes from how some have had to search for the bodies of their dead relatives for months without any help from the state (, November 28). Despite efforts to suppress protests by the wives of draftees “at any cost” (see EDM, November 27), Russian officials have been unable to reduce this activity. Some of these women recently recorded a video message to Putin on the Telegram channel “Way Home” (“Put’ domoi”). They emphasize that they are not hoping for political instability but for the state to stop using regular citizens as soldiers and to send their husbands and sons home (, December 7). Some relatives of soldiers advocate for their complete demobilization, calling the current indefinite service “legalized slavery” (, December 7). The Telegram channel has been marked “fake” after complaints from pro-government officials and added to a list of “anti-war resources connected to foreign special services” (Radio Svaboda, December 1;, accessed December 11).

Despite constant attempts to discredit the wives of draftees and label them “Navalny’s agents,” many Russians seem to be sympathetic to their cause (Р, December 3). Both the opposition and official media have published interviews with these women. For example, on the popular online portal (based in the city of Chelyabinsk), the problems of mobilized families and Moscow’s inattention to these issues are candidly described (, September 25).

For now, this dissatisfaction has not resulted in massive protests. Increased repression is not the only reason for that. Moscow’s war against Ukraine has forced Russian society to consolidate against a “common enemy” to try to find normalcy in their current reality. However, the cruelty against people who are accustomed to killing and who know how to handle weapons could backfire on the Kremlin. If a stalemate on the Ukrainian battlefield persists, the problems caused by the war and the new “fault lines” in Russian society will increasingly assert themselves and likely cause more problems at home for Moscow.