Russian veterans returning from Ukraine have caused violent crime rates to skyrocket even more dramatically than veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars.
The Kremlin’s own policies of recruiting soldiers along ethnic lines and leniently handling veterans who do commit crimes are compounding the problem.
Moscow is finally beginning to recognize its problem but has not figured out what to do. It may take a course that could exacerbate its difficulties in recruiting more troops for the war effort and maintaining control at home.
All wars leave in their wake veterans who find it difficult to return to civilian life after the violence they have experienced, sometimes turning to criminal activities. Russia had that problem after the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, when the “Afgantsy” (veterans of that conflict) returned home and triggered a wave of terror (MBK News, December 22, 2019; Kasparov.ru, January 10). A similar experience took place after the first and second Chechen wars, with veterans of those conflicts leading an upsurge in violence across Russia (see EDM, June 8, 1995). As early as 2014, following Moscow’s Anschluss of Ukrainian Crimea, some in Russian law enforcement and the expert community presciently predicted that “Ukraintsy” (veterans of Russia’s war against Ukraine) would represent an updated version of the Afgantsy (Window on Eurasia, April 22, 2015; Kasparov.ru, January 10)
Today, those fears appear entirely justified. Since Moscow’s expanded invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, violent crime in Russia has risen to levels greater than any other time in the past decade (The Moscow Times, January 15). As a result, Russian commentators are suggesting that history is repeating itself. Some have gone so far as to declare that the problems presented by the Ukraintsy will be far greater and more dangerous than the Afgantsy ever were. These analysts point to several factors compounding the problem, including a greater number of returning veterans, the military’s recruitment of prisoners serving time for violent crimes, and Moscow’s failure to aid veterans’ transition to civilian life (Kommersant; Rosbalt.ru, November 19, 2023; Window on Eurasia, November 21, 2023).
Specifically, these Russian writers point to Moscow’s readiness to recruit criminals first into private military companies and then the regular army. This “revolving door” makes it quite likely that many will return to lives of crime, especially given that Russian courts are less willing to impose harsh sentences on veterans and Russian legislators are more inclined to allow veterans to have easy access to guns (Verstka.media, November 18, 2022; June 16, October 9, 2023). These observers add that Moscow’s decision to recruit primarily from the non-Russian republics and poorer Russian regions means such crime may take on an ethnic dimension and generate a response from the population, setting the stage for ethnic conflicts to turn violent (see EDM, April 20, 2022; Window on Eurasia, September 15, 2023). They also suggest that Moscow’s decision to pay huge bonuses to convince men to fight in Ukraine may lead to veterans having to adjust to far lower incomes when they come home. Some may turn to crime for additional money (Publizist.ru, January 11). Finally, these commentators point out that the Russian government has done little to help re-integrate veterans into Russian society by providing special programs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. These shortcomings are undoubtedly leading more veterans to decide that Moscow is not their friend but their enemy and that they can ignore its laws (Holod.media, July 19, 2022).
The Kremlin and state-controlled media outlets have regularly played down these problems. They choose instead to treat veterans as a class of heroes rather than openly discuss the spreading violence and crime. Russian officials have also failed to release any statistics publicly that could confirm these judgments of the expert community (Novaya Gazeta, July 23, 2023; Meduza, December 28, 2023).
The situation has become far too problematic for the Kremlin to ignore. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is beginning to focus on the problems of veterans. He visited a military hospital at the beginning of January, and this past week, he and his top aides were quite frank in official meetings about how large and explosive the issue has becomeing (Meduza, January 16, 17). In his remarks, Putin stressed the veterans’ heroism and the ways in which they serve as a link between generations in Russia. He also noted that veterans, on their return home, are unlikely to be pleased by the actions and attitudes of some members of the Russian elite, including those who took part in the “almost naked” party in Moscow at the end of last year (see EDM, January 17). Putin called on regional and municipal officials to take the lead in offering quality jobs to veterans so they can more seamlessly re-integrate with society, another indication that many veterans are having problems finding work that pays well. Reporting on the meeting, Russian journalist Anton Grigoryev said that it showed “the authorities have taken into account the experience of the Soviet Union and do not intend for a repeat of Afgantsy.” Moscow sees what is happening now as resembling the earlier experience with “Afghan Syndrome” and is casting about for ways to prevent the situation from becoming a threat to public order (see EDM, October 25, November 13, 2023; Ura.news, January 16).
Among other participants in the series of meetings about Russian veterans of the war in Ukraine were men who had served in Afghanistan, senior Kremlin officials, and Anna Tsivileva, head of the Defenders of the Fatherland Foundation. Tsivileva spoke for many when she said, “The main task of the forum is to help veterans more quickly return to a peaceful life and continue to be of service to our country. Thanks to the forum.” She added, “A community of like-minded people is being created who can come together and share experiences. Together, we are discussing the involvement of demobilized warriors in projects that are directed at strengthening civil society: they must participate in social life and educate young people by their example.” Another speaker, Duma deputy Oleg Leonov, said that “people who have gone to defend the Motherland must know that they will be needed, that they have work and that they will not simply be needed but respected.” Leonov’s words were an indication that many veterans do not feel needed and respected. Consequently, they are more likely to engage in anti-government actions, be it crime or protests about social or ethnic issues.
The Kremlin is beginning to worry about the problems with returning veterans of the war in Ukraine but does not yet have a clear idea about what to do. Engaging in more repressions against veterans, a favored tactic of the Putin regime in other cases, could prove counterproductive. Such an approach may reduce Moscow’s ability to recruit more troops and threaten to spark more anger among veterans, who, in some cases, have been armed as a result of Moscow’s policies and may take action against the government.