Life at home is not always peaceful and full of glory for Russian soldiers returning from the war in Ukraine. Recent statistics from the Judicial Department of the Russian Supreme Court display a significant jump in criminal convictions of former military personnel in the first six months of 2023 as compared to previous years. These statistics show a large increase in “murders [and] serious bodily and violent acts of a sexual nature,” including violence against minors. In contrast, the statistics of crimes from non-military citizens has stayed relatively steady (Mediazona, October 17). This rise in crime goes against the Kremlin’s depictions of these noble fighters and their successful reintegration into Russian society (see EDM, October 25). It has also triggered fears among the Russian population of a possible repeat of the “Afghan Syndrome” among veterans of the war in Ukraine.
Russian officials are actively isolating those coming home from the conflict in Ukraine. These efforts are being carried out behind the scenes, despite the pompous rhetoric and attempts to glorify the “heroes” of the so-called “special military operation” (SVO). Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally declared that Russia should provide all necessary means for the engagement of “SVO veterans” in public activities (Lenta.ru, July 20). Veterans returning from the frontlines are actively participating in school presentations as part of students’ “patriotic education” and even engaging in election campaigns. The fund “Defenders of the Fatherland” was established to support Russian veterans, with branches opening across the country (see EDM, August 8).
In practice, the government is paying a lot less attention to these veterans than it may appear from public pronouncements. At the end of October, the independent St. Petersburg publication Bumaga published an extensive piece shedding light on the challenges volunteers face when assisting wounded soldiers. According to representatives from the organizations involved, military and civilian hospitals are rejecting those offering help to the wounded and refuse to deliver their gifts to patients, even turning away caregivers (Paperpaper.ru, October 31). Access to hospitals is granted only after a thorough background check and only with the proper permits, which can take several months to obtain. This lack of cooperation is happening despite the acute shortages of intravenous solutions, feeding tubes, and disposable catheters that were actively procured by non-profit organizations at the onset of the conflict (BBC News Russian, May 30, 2022). As a result, volunteers are forced to purchase expensive medicines, walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs out of their own pockets. Those who support such efforts have been summoned by Russia’s Investigative Committee and accused of undermining the Ministry of Defense’s actions, compelling them to remove requests for assistance to the wounded from their social media profiles (Paperpaper.ru, October 31).
The much-touted Defenders of the Fatherland fund has also fallen short in supporting SVO veterans and their families. According to some journalists, veterans and their relatives have labeled the fund as “ineffective” and lament the lack of medical, financial, or legal support. In addition, the fund’s staff members appear to routinely ignore appeals for assistance (Paperpaper.ru, September 12).
Veterans of the war in Ukraine have encountered similar problems in almost every region of Russia. For example, some veterans from Tyumen have reported difficulties in receiving payments from the government and obtaining veteran certificates (Nashgorod.ru, July 31). Meanwhile, social networks under Kremlin control are blocking posts urging the return of those who were called up under the “partial mobilization” decree (Paperpaper.ru, October 4).
Moscow is effectively isolating those returning from the front to conceal any unfavorable information about the war. This has created a seemingly contradictory attitude within Russian society toward the “SVO veterans.” Recent surveys conducted by independent sociologists reveal that support for the Russian Armed Forces continues to rise, currently standing at 76 percent. These surveys, in contrast, indicate a significantly larger number of supporters of peaceful negotiations than those in favor of continuing military actions, coming to 56 and 37 percent, respectively (Levada.ru, October 31).
These statistics reflect a strong desire for peace and security among most Russians. Many in Russian society understand that negotiations are the quickest route to achieving these objectives. Many citizens, however, avoid dwelling on the reasons for the war and view the military as a primary means of defense against external threats, though this does not necessarily imply overwhelming support for the military.
Contradictory tendencies are also evident in the treatment of veterans. On the one hand, independent media outlets report a significant increase in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) associated with the war that are presumably raising funds to support Russian soldiers. According to some outlets, those Russian NGOs working with the military and mobilized recruits collected at least 113 billion rubles (about $1.2 million) in donations last year (Novayagazeta.eu, August 28). On the other hand, there has been a noted rise in violent conflicts between ordinary citizens and “SVO veterans” (see EDM, September 18; October 25).
Government-controlled media outlets even acknowledge the growing number of such conflicts. The Russian Orthodox television channel Tsargrad refers to this phenomenon as a “hunt for special operation fighters on the home front” (Tsargrad.tv, September 19). Cases of attacks on participants in the SVO have become more frequent in the Transbaikal and Primorsky regions, where residents reportedly “exhibit hostility towards the military” (Т.me/newsvlc, September 13). Earlier, a military official in Saratov was denied entry to a café due to his uniform (Tsargrad.tv, November 27, 2022), and another was expelled from a hostel in Moscow (Tsargrad.tv, September 17, 2022).
It is already apparent that tensions are escalating in several of Russia’s regions concerning the return of soldiers from Ukraine, particularly those with a criminal background (Current Time TV, July 21). Isolation, neglect, and a lack of support, coupled with rejection by a significant segment of Russian society, create a fertile ground for the re-emergence of “Afghan Syndrome.” This phenomenon first surfaced after the ten-year war that the Soviets fought in Afghanistan. Returning servicemen felt unwanted and ostracized by society, often displaying antisocial or even criminal behavior. Similar tendencies are beginning to surface among today’s SVO participants (see EDM, October 25). If the Russian government continues to abandon returning soldiers and neglect their needs, increased unrest among ordinary citizens and veterans of the war may soon be on the horizon.