By Leon Aron
January 26, 2023
Leon Aron is the author of “Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.” He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and has just completed a book about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and beyond.
“When we kill five out of 10 of their soldiers at once, they are replenished again over the course of several hours,” a Ukrainian officer said recently of the Russian troops that for weeks have besieged the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. The Russians, he added, stormed the defenders’ positions “five, six, seven times” a day.
In the unprecedented ferocity and relentlessness of the Russian assault, Bakhmut might signal the emergence of a new Kremlin warfighting doctrine.
The Russians started this war as a relatively high-tech blitzkrieg. But after the retreat from Kyiv and the Kharkiv region, and the loss of Kherson, their conduct of operations is rapidly reverting to the way Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union fought the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians almost always refer to World War II): a maniacal slog over the corpses of Russian soldiers. The dismissal earlier this month of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the former commander of the Russian troops in Ukraine who organized a more or less orderly withdrawal from Kherson, reiterated the message: Saving soldiers’ lives is of no importance; pushing forward at any cost is.
The advent of Stalin’s way of war has been prepared by re-stalinization inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia: the steadily heightened repression; the anti-Western hysteria of Putin’s speeches, the vulgarity of which would put to shame any post-Stalin Soviet leader; and militarized patriotism as the de facto official ideology. In 2020, after years of pro-military propaganda, Russians rated the army as the most trusted national institution. Russian soldiers can now be worshiped in the recently built Cathedral of the Armed Forces.
The West’s allegedly perennial threat to Russia’s sovereignty has become the dominant propaganda theme, and Putin’s defense of the motherland from the West’s depredations is the mainstay of his support and his regime’s legitimacy. The Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War has been declared the most significant event in Russia’s history and the apotheosis of national glory. Victory Day on May 9 has become the most important holiday, complete with infants in WWII uniforms, prams shaped like tanks, and kindergartners lined up in mock military parades.
“The military-patriotic hysteria brings to mind the USSR of the 1930’s, the era of parades of athletes, tank mock-ups and dirigibles, and shaved napes,” wrote opposition essayist Sergei Medvedev. “Today, the people again joyfully dress in Red Army uniforms, take pictures of themselves on tanks and await war.” In the endless victory liturgy, Medvedev continued, Putin has forged a nation of war that has “battened the hatches and views the world through the
lookout slit of a tank.”
Stalin’s wartime triumph has absolved him of all his monstrous crimes. A 2021 poll revealed that 60 percent of Russians viewed Stalin positively — the culmination of a years-long trend that showed the Soviet dictator elbowing Peter the Great and Alexander Pushkin from first place among the most outstanding figures in world history. In 2012, on Putin’s 60th birthday, his favorite television talk host, the rabid propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, concluded his tribute by telling viewers that of all Russian and Soviet leaders of the 20th century, Putin was comparable only to Stalin.
Soon thereafter, Putin appropriated the title that Stalin awarded himself at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War: “Supreme Commander-in-Chief.” Although the Communist Party general secretaries who followed Stalin were ex officio supreme commanders in chief, no Soviet leader since him had been so publicly addressed. Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, led the way in November 2015, when reporting on Russia’s successes in Syria. Since then, the title has been repeated at every military or paramilitary function Putin attended, whether a meeting at the headquarters of the Russian police or a naval parade. In last year’s Victory Day parade, Putin was identified as “President — Supreme Commander-in-Chief” in the official transcript. For the first time in Putin’s 22 years in power “Supreme Commander-in-Chief” was added to “President.” Putin, wrote the political philosopher Alexandr Tsypko, was trying “to grab onto Stalin’s military overcoat and to slip into his jackboots.”
Bakhmut has shown that it’s not just for the rank that Putin looked to Stalin. Stalin’s infamous 1942 Order No. 227, known as “Not a step back,” created penal battalions, or shtrafbats. Staffed with officers and soldiers “guilty of the breach of discipline,” the shtrafbats were sent on kamikaze “human waves” attacks to “redeem by blood their crimes against the motherland.” Those lucky enough to be wounded but not killed were returned to regular units.
Reinforced with criminals plucked out of jails and promised pardon after six months in Ukraine, Putin’s de facto private mercenary army, the Wagner Group, looks more and more like a shtrafbat: Its soldiers have reportedly been sent on suicide missions or summarily executed for “cowardice.” The Wagner Group has already surpassed Stalin’s secret police in cruelty. Those executioners shot “traitors,” but their successors smash heads with a sledgehammer. It might not be long before we see another iteration of Order No. 227 — “blocking units” — positioned behind the advancing soldiers to shoot anyone retreating or merely hesitant.
“We drowned the enemy in our blood; we buried him under our corpses,” a war veteran and writer, Viktor Astafiev, recalled in 1988 of his experience in the Great Patriotic War.
The current defense minister, Shoigu, has proposed raising the number of combat personnel in the armed forces from 1.15 million to 1.5 million. Putin is readying for such a war. Ukraine and its Western supporters ought to be steeled for it as well.