Soldiers who don’t follow the suicidal Kremlin orders now risk gunfire from both sides of the war

by Askold Krushelnycky

The Independent

Oct 28, 2023

So brutal is the conflict in the heavily fortified battlefields around the city of Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine, that Western intelligence suggests some Russian commanders are now executing soldiers who refuse to advance into the tempest of rocket and gunfire. Avdiivka, a scarred and jagged outpost of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, has become the new focal point of Kremlin efforts to snatch something they can present as a victory. Despite severe censorship, Russians now understand that Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-blown invasion has been a catastrophe, with casualties, by some estimates, topping more than 300,000 dead and wounded.


In the face of such merciless “human-wave zombie attacks” deployed by the increasingly desperate Russian high command, those numbers are only set to rise.


The story of this ravaged land is one of bloodshed and defiance. Though Russia captured Donetsk city in 2014, it could never take Avdiivka, with Ukrainian forces having been stubbornly entrenched in advantageous positions ever since. The city had a population of some 30,000 before fighting erupted in 2014 – and that figure had shrunk further when Russia finally started its all-out attempt to capture Ukraine in February 2022. Most of it, like so many other Ukrainian cities, has since been reduced to rubble.


President Joe Biden’s spokesperson John Kirby earlier this week said intelligence estimated the Russians had lost 1,000 soldiers and at least 125 crucial armoured vehicles in Avdiivka since October 11. Kirby said that its agencies believed Russia was using suicidal “human wave” attacks to try to squeeze Ukrainian defenders out of their positions.


Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told Rishi Sunak that the Russians had lost the equivalent of an entire brigade while trying to seize this grizzled land. His office said on Friday that the two leaders talked by phone, with Mr Zelensky telling Mr Sunak: “Russia is continuing attempts to occupy the entire Donbas [a swathe of eastern Ukraine comprising large areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions]. The occupier has made several attempts to surround Avdiivka but each time our forces stopped them and pushed them back with painful losses. The enemy lost at least a brigade in these attempts.”


Unlike a Nato brigade, which tends to number about 5,000, a Russian brigade can be anything from 2,000 to 8,000 people. But steep Russian losses and difficulties in recruiting willing replacements since Putin launched his full-blown invasion mean that few brigades are operating at anywhere near full strength.

US and UK intelligence agree that the Russians are having difficulty recruiting men to fill the growing gaps in their forces. New recruits, with little training and poor equipment, are being pushed into the meat grinder, leading to big losses and low morale.


They say that the Russians redeployed men fighting further south to bolster diminishing ranks in Avdiivka. The Ukrainian military have long said that they have seen Russians taking appalling casualties because they are being threatened with punishment, including being executed, if they fail to advance.


One Ukrainian colonel, facing intensified Russian attacks to the north of the battlefield, said that intelligence showed those refusing to advance were sent to “special camps where they are held as prisoners, abused, beaten, underfed and threatened until they submit to returning to the frontlines”.


He said: “The Wagner mercenaries used to shoot their own, many of whom were convicts, because so many were being cut down in human-wave zombie attacks against Ukrainian lines. Now the regular Russian forces are adopting the same tactics.”


Wagner mercenaries produced practically the sole pyrrhic victory the Kremlin could boast of with tens of thousands of its soldiers cut down by Ukrainian troops, who told of their amazement that the Russians kept coming over the massed bodies of their dead comrades. Eventually, they claimed to take Bakhmut – by then largely ruins. But the battle for the city has never ceased, with Ukrainian forces making small advances this month.


The regular Russian military has also copied Wagner techniques by trawling prisons for recruits who are promised a pardon if they complete a period of fighting.


US and UK intelligence, as well as the Ukrainians, say that the reluctant fighters are often pressed into groups they have dubbed “ShtormZ” or “Black Mamba”. “Shtorm” denotes swift assault while the Kremlin uses Z as a patriotic symbol and advertisement for its forces. But “Z” has a double meaning as it is also the first letter of “Zek” which means a prison inmate. The Russian government and military high command have consistently demonstrated that it cares little for the number of its casualties.


The “Zek” soldiers know that their lives are worth even less than ordinary soldiers and morale has slumped to such an extraordinary extent that any sign of defiance risks punishment, even being executed by their own comrades.


Wagner was broken up as a cohesive group after it staged a short-lived rebellion against Russia’s high command. While it lasted, its poor battlefield leadership led to great loss of life, while shoddy logistics meant a lack of weapons, ammunition, food and medical supplies.

These are the same complaints now causing many Russian regulars to refuse orders to go into the doomed attacks.


The Institute for the Study of War believes that although Russia has put much of its economy on a war footing and put weapons production into overdrive, it will not be able to “offset the cumulative equipment losses in Ukraine”. The ISW predicts the huge casualties

and disastrous results will further degrade its ability to gain success against Ukrainian forces.


Mr Zelensky had called Mr Sunak to thank him for Britain’s strident support in the war effort. On 23 October the British government announced a further £100m in military aid for Kyiv.


Perhaps those Russian soldiers charging into battle, with rifles pointed at their front and backs, might one day reflect on whether their own leadership shared such similar gratitude for their inglorious efforts. Though maybe not.