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Russia’s Structural Weaknesses Produce Military Atrocities

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On the phone, Russian soldiers are bragging about the goods they’ve managed to loot from the Ukrainian houses they found temporary lodging in: One has drunk cognac, one appropriated machine tools for his own projects, and one obtained fur coats for his wife and daughter. One woman is elated but with a tinge of worry: “Are you allowed to do this?” she asked. She asks not out of concern for Ukrainians, but out of fear of her husband’s superiors. The soldier reassures her: His officers don’t care because “they get stuff out of it too.”

This was posted on a single, biased source: Ukraine’s official Twitter account. But many sources have corroborated that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have been looting on a massive scale. The movement of loot like AirPods, phones, and laptops is visible across continents in GPS tracking.

The looting has been taking place on all levels of operation, from ordinary soldiers like these men to their officers. On March 12, Defence Intelligence of Ukraine reported that the Russian army legalized looting: “Due to significant logistical problems and stretched communications, they are unable to properly provide their units with fuel, food, equipment, ammunition and rotation.” The Russian army gave permission to do something that had already been occurring for weeks when it instructed its troops to live off the land and “move to ‘self-sufficiency’ until further orders.”

On the phone, Russian soldiers are bragging about the goods they’ve managed to loot from the Ukrainian houses they found temporary lodging in: One has drunk cognac, one appropriated machine tools for his own projects, and one obtained fur coats for his wife and daughter. One woman is elated but with a tinge of worry: “Are you allowed to do this?” she asked. She asks not out of concern for Ukrainians, but out of fear of her husband’s superiors. The soldier reassures her: His officers don’t care because “they get stuff out of it too.”

This was posted on a single, biased source: Ukraine’s official Twitter account. But many sources have corroborated that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have been looting on a massive scale. The movement of loot like AirPods, phones, and laptops is visible across continents in GPS tracking.

The looting has been taking place on all levels of operation, from ordinary soldiers like these men to their officers. On March 12, Defence Intelligence of Ukraine reported that the Russian army legalized looting: “Due to significant logistical problems and stretched communications, they are unable to properly provide their units with fuel, food, equipment, ammunition and rotation.” The Russian army gave permission to do something that had already been occurring for weeks when it instructed its troops to live off the land and “move to ‘self-sufficiency’ until further orders.”

But this isn’t, as a European Union official claimed, because “Russians may look European [but] they’re not European.” The causes lie in the nature of the Russian state at present and the material conditions of the Russian army, not in Russians themselves.

The Russian army is extremely poorly supplied. Even at the beginning of the war, the men were feeding and transporting themselves by theft. A photograph posted on Twitter on Feb. 27, three days after the invasion began, showed an advancing Russian convoy made up of looted civilian vehicles. On March 9, a Ukrainian Twitter account posted a video of Russian soldiers stealing chickens. Early in the war, soldiers were filmed begging for food and stealing gasoline. Conscripted Donetsk People’s Republic troops were taped sleeping behind tarps and what looks like structures of scrap lumber.

Some of the motivation for theft is poor pay and a lack of supplies. Many soldiers come from the poorest and most remote regions of Russia, and for them, loot is a precious source of extra funds: Russian conscripts get the equivalent of a $31 monthly stipend, and before the war, contract soldiers were getting 62,000 rubles a month, which was about $961 a month at prewar exchange rates. If these men die, their wives will get 10,000 rubles, the equivalent of roughly $153.

Russian troops were also cut off from their own supplies because Russian logistics have been shockingly bad. Possibly thinking of prior engagements like in Syria, the Russian army prepared for brutal but less logistically-taxing assaults on major cities.  These assaults failed, and there was no backup plan. The Russian army now faces challenges like moving supply convoys through hostile territory, poor communication, and scattered to possibly nonexistent command.

Yet these problems are not just the result of a failed bet on a quick victory. There is a complex of attitudes and practices deeper and more pervasive producing these problems. For instance, Russian military vehicles have been breaking down not only because they were not maintained adequately during their lifetimes and many of their parts were counterfeited or missing but because they were stolen.

This is the product of years of failure. This dismal provisioning situation is visible in retrospect in earlier sources before the war where soldiers complained about not being supplied basic materials like uniforms and boots.

The Russian army is poorly supplied and poorly paid because within Russia’s military apparatus, the public and the private are interpenetrated. There’s a long history of this in warfare: In 17th-century Europe, it was normal for “military entrepreneurs” to contract their services to heads of state for profit because the nascent state could not yet handle war-making on its own. In modern Russia, the converse is the case. Instead of state capacity not yet being sufficient to tackle warfare, the Russian state has degraded to the point where it can no longer run the military endeavors it once did. Private individuals are profiting off a state that can no longer perform basic tasks.

In both early modern Europe and modern Russia, the weakness of the state apparatus and the unaccountability of private individuals lead to phenomena like officers confiscating their men’s rations to resell. However, while corruption was known and expected then and heads of state planned around it, its catastrophic effects in this war were not foreseen by Western analysts—and may not even have been grasped by those in power in Russia. These analysts have been shocked by early modern officers’ most fundamental problem: the gulf between paper and real strength in a society where war is pursued for profit and the interpenetration of public and private is normal.

State interest and personal interest sometimes coincide; for instance, the aim of many but not all early-modern military entrepreneurs was to win glory for themselves and make money or rise socially in the service of their lords and paymasters. Like the sale of venal offices, this relationship could be beneficial on both sides: The head of state gets an officer, and the officer gets ennobled. But when they’re at odds, the effects are corrosive. Russian President Vladimir Putin has grand ideological ambitions for a war of conquest, but the aim of the individuals in his army is to profit. This is true at all levels, from figures like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who also heads the infamous mercenary Wagner Group, to common soldiers. Profit can be secured by corrupt activity like stealing your men’s rations to resell. In the field, it can also be secured by looting or forced contributions. Whether the Ukrainian tweet of Russian phone calls was authentic or not, the fact that a soldier reportedly said officers do not care because “they get stuff out of it too” expresses events on the ground.

The coordination missing from the battlefield has been on display in the pillaging. For instance, a picture of a destroyed Russian cargo truck full of looted washing machines appeared on Twitter: Both the truck and the sorting of loot into specific categories imply coordination. So does looting military supplies and shipping them express to Russia. It’s likely that officers are appropriating their men’s loot and coordinating its sale while giving them a cut.

Although many ordinary soldiers just want food or alcohol or things for their own or their families’ use, like their 17th-century counterparts, many view this war as an opportunity to obtain goods to resell. One Ukrainian journalist observed markets in Belarus reselling loot, such as “dishwashers, bicycles, carpets.” There is plenty of precedent for this in war. Otto von Guericke, mayor of Magdeburg, Germany, when imperialist troops sacked it in 1631, left descriptions of the pop-up soldier markets made during and after the sack that could be identical to those existing today except for the bicycles and the dishwashers.

Habitual looting, thefts, requisitions, and clashes with civilians create an example of what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called an “atrocity-producing situation.” An “atrocity-producing situation” is one so structured that an average person, like an 18-year-old Russian conscript—or you or I—can “regularly commit atrocities.” Lifton lists factors, such as a feeling of vulnerability, a breakdown in the distinction between combatants and civilians, tacit or explicit encouragement by superiors to produce results, and anger and grief at dead friends. One factor he stresses is the assumed presence of “invisible” or hidden assailants and the “desperate need to identify some ‘enemy.’”

Some of these factors were present for all armies in the 16th and 17th centuries: For instance, because of the way armies could not control territory beyond their lines of communication, there was often no such thing as a classical “front” behind which hostilities did not occur. Civilians routinely attacked soldiers, and the difference between people who were threats and people who were not was not apparent by sight. All of these factors were present for the U.S. Army in Vietnam and Iraq, and they are present for the Russian army in Ukraine. The difference is that in the Russian army, the eventual atrocities are at best ignored and often officially praised.

The Wall Street Journal reports “hungry and undisciplined Russian troops shooting unarmed villagers, breaking into supermarkets and shops, and raiding homes in search of food and valuables as their own supply lines have failed.” At checkpoints, soldiers demand food and cigarettes. When Russian troops occupied Trostyanets, Ukraine, they cut the city’s water and power. As their supplies ran out, soldiers began shooting their way into homes and shops in small groups. The cohesion of small groups, which military theorists regard as one of the reasons men fight, is also a framework that can encourage abuse, rape, looting, or desertion.

In this case, the invisible enemy is Nazis, Banderites, or Ukrainian nationalists the Russian army was supposed to be liberating Ukraine from. When Russian troops did not find these Nazis in occupied Trostyanets, they grew paranoid, frustrated, and enraged. They became more brutal as time passed—tanks firing on buildings at random. In Bucha, Ukraine, the soldiers herded people into a dacha, a Russian summer home, for torture. These soldiers also appear to have been hopelessly naive and unsupported by their government. Many did not know why they were there. One soldier interviewed in the Wall Street Journal’s report wanted to know if the Ukrainians liked them: Unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance may have been felt by men like him as ingratitude or betrayal. They may have thought rape, murder, torture, and looting was punishment.

Russian soldiers loot, destroy, and rape as the result of a series of factors within the Russian military apparatus, which speaks to the fundamentals of governance and corruption in Russia itself. Offering nothing to its soldiers but contempt, the Russian army has created an atrocity factory.



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