When veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan—the so-called “Afgantsy”—and veterans of the two Russian campaigns in Chechnya returned to their homes, many had a difficult time fitting back into a peaceful life. Some used the military skills they had acquired to engage in various kinds of crime. And often, these veterans took to drink to the point of becoming burdens on the social services of that country. Both analysts and ordinary Russians now fear that when Russian soldiers return from the brutal war in Ukraine—something that will happen even before the conflict there comes to an end—they will have a serious and even more negative impact on the life of Russia itself. Indeed, such fears are now so profound that many Russian commentators are talking about the current war in Ukraine less in terms of the conflict itself than with regard to these domestic social consequences, which they see as unavoidable and even inevitable.
The horrific scenes coming out of Bucha, Irpen and other Ukrainian cities (see EDM, April 13) “not only make [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a war criminal,” Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev says, but “show ‘the quality’ of the Russian army.” The soldiers who serve in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are so undisciplined and prone to criminal actions that they will pose a serious threat to the country itself once hundreds of thousands of war veterans return home, Inozemtsev argues. The behavior of the Russian military is not that surprising in one sense, the expert writes. After all, it was sent to fight by an organized criminal group, the Putin regime; and “if one such group steals, why should the other not specialize in murders?” (Kasparov.ru, April 5).
But in thinking about the future, it should be obvious, he continues, that the several tens of thousands of Russian ruling elites will simply flee if and when Russia is defeated, whereas the much larger number of angry, traumatized, and physically and psychologically damaged veterans of the Ukrainian war will not. And the latter’s presence will bleed back into broader Russian society in horrific ways. Consequently, “even if Putin meets his next birthday in The Hague or does not live that long—and the chances of both these scenarios are growing today with unimaginable speed—the rapists, murderers and marauders will be returning to society and will significantly change its nature,” Inozemtsev says. The veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya were not as dangerous for Russia society: not only were there fewer of them and they came back gradually but also social norms at that point were better and exercised a greater influence on the behavior of veterans, he continues (Kasparov.ru, April 5).
Inozemtsev notes that Russian military commanders in Ukraine are either turning a blind eye to, encouraging, or even ordering the troops under their command to commit mass murder and atrocities. And this means “that even after the departure of Putin, the country will have to deal with the criminalization of society that he sponsored over several decades.” In comparison, he asserts, “the ‘accursed’ 1990s, will appear a model of gentlemanly behavior and decency” (Kasparov.ru, April 5).
A major reason for that fear is that ever more Russians are arming themselves. Even prior to February 24, 2022, when Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine, some observers suggested there were as many as 25 million guns in private hands in the Russian Federation. Wars almost inevitably lead to a bleeding back into society not only of people accustomed to violence but of weapons that allow them to engage in such acts (see Monitor, July 21, 1995 and August 22, 1995). And in response to that threat, ever more Russians have been buying up guns and ammunition since February, fearful that international sanctions will limit their access to such defenses or raise prices enough to put weapons out of their reach, even if returning veterans-turned-criminals wield them freely (RBC, March 23).
The Russian government is now mulling new and more restrictive laws on gun ownership. Indeed, Putin has rhetorically backed such measures in the past. But few Russians think legislation can preempt deadly clashes between either ordinary Russians and violent criminals or even between the state and parts of the newly armed citizenry—particularly the share made up of combat veterans (Profile.ru, Newizv.ru, October 12, 2021; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, November 17, 2019, December 7, 2019, December 22, 2019).
What is especially significant is that ordinary residents of Russia are already talking about the current war on the basis of their experiences with veterans of past conflicts. The mother of a young Tatar man now facing the draft said that among her reasons for being against his serving in Ukraine is what happened to “the Afgantsy.” Many of them received medals for their service but also were left physically and psychologically crippled. Some took to drink, became criminals or even suffered mental issues. Now, Moscow is promising draftees that if they are willing to serve in Ukraine, they will obtain real benefits. But she says, “they also promised our Afghanistan veterans the same thing, and nothing happened,” yet another reason for not putting trust in Kremlin pronouncements (Idel.Realii, April 7, 2022).
It is difficult to see anything positive in all this, but one Russian analyst has tried. Three years ago, Sergei Prostakov, the editor of MBC news, posited that the returning “Afgantsy” played a positive as well as a negative role. According to him, the Afghan veterans, by forming organizations to defend their interests, helped to promote the development of civil society in Russia at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s (MBC, December 22, 2019). Veterans of the Ukrainian war would seem unlikely to be suited to play a similar role—after all, the veterans of the Chechen wars did not self-organize under the new reality of Putin’s Russia. But it is not impossible and could, despite everything, happen again. For that reason—combined with the dangers of a new and more violent crime wave in Russia—these trends demand the closest possible attention.