Atrocities and the Slow Death of Russia

August 3, 2022

Friends: I am writing another somewhat long-ish blog post because Facebook has banned my account yet again for 30 days (again, from the Bulgarian side, which really seems to be going after any accounts that seem pro-Ukrainian). I will give you a quick front update before moving on to some interesting strategic questions.

The war of attrition continues as wars of attrition do: with minimal changes in the front lines but serious losses for both sides. The main attempts of the RFA/ORDLO forces have been focusing on Bakhmut with the goal of taking the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration. They have made slow progress there but the attacks have been less successful than even the slow grind toward Severodonetsk because the Russians were compelled to move loads of troops to the South to reinforce their defensive positions there and prepare for an offensive — the idea being that it’s best to attack rather than defend against the anticipated VSU counter-offense.

The VSU counter offense started without any announcement weeks ago, and is not flashy at all. Instead, it’s a methodical gaining of ground north of Kherson, along with destroying RFA’s capacity to supply its troops in the area by blowing up ammo and fuel depots in the rear and, more recently, severing transportation links like bridges and railways. The much-talked about bridge in Kherson was put out of commission and, more importantly, so was the nearby railway bridge. Rail is much more important to the RFA, so this loss will be felt more keenly. The Russians have installed a pontoon bridge right next to the one the VSU attacked, but they cannot transfer heavy machinery. In other words, while the RFA can bring in quite a few soldiers in the area, supplying them with ammo and firepower is a totally different story. A leaked video by a (masked and anonymized) Russian soldier from the Kherson area addressed to the the high command says that the troops understand their dangerously exposed position. The VSU has called on them to surrender rather than defend, and the soldier says they have little to defend with, and that the way out has been cut. Moreover, he claimed that Chechens with machine guns are on the left bank of the Dnipro River, meaning that attempt to swim to safety will probably be met with deadly force. (There were reports from Kherson that Russian soldiers were buying all sorts of water floatation devices they could find.)

Losing Kherson, the only administrative capital conquered so far, would be a serious blow to the Kremlin and might lead to drastic behavior at the top. The Russians know this, which is why they are trying to start a new offensive in the south in order to push the VSU back north and possibly take the rest of Zaporizhzhie. In the meantime, they have denuded their positions in Donbas, which might invite a VSU attack there. Obviously, the General Staff is playing with cards close to the chest, and nobody can tell for sure where they will strike. That the VSU has been concentrating forces in the south at expense of other places is also clear: there was a leaked post from a Ukrainian soldier in the Peskov area, which showed that the VSU forces there are seriously out-gunned by the Russians, and suffering under a terrible artillery onslaught.

The RFA is supposed to finish preparations for its assault on the 5th, and the question is whether the VSU can preempt this in some way. We will find out over the next few days.

The situation with Belarus remains unchanged, with Lukashenko coming up with ever more fanciful explanations about why his government is on the Russian side (the last one, astonishingly, claimed that Ukraine hadn’t been trading enough with Belarus — the statistics, unsurprisingly, show a massive increase in trade over the past 2 years — and God-knows what other nonsense). Thus far, there are still no indications that Belarusian forces will intervene, but the Russians are piling up rocket launchers along the border, which still keeps a good portion of the VSU committed for a potential defense there.

In the occupied territories, the Russians have begun the campaign for the referendum in September. Billboards and murals proclaim that the region’s future is with Russia, and so on. Putin has also streamlined the issue of Russian passports to all who might want them. The partisans occasionally kill collaborators, and it remains very dangerous for Russian troops to be without protection in these areas. The impression is that the Kremlin wants to create the narrative of an irreversible change, with which to stifle any opposition as doomed, while the Ukrainians are trying to increase the costs of collaboration with the occupying forces until the VSU can liberate the areas. It is virtually impossible to tell what is going on there because the Russians have cut off almost all communication, and now even the Ukrainian mail service no longer runs there. For all I know, most people do not know how the war is going on, and might believe that Ukraine has already lost. Still, there are no signs of Ukrainians going over to the Russian side in significant numbers, and the behavior of Russian authorities in Donbas — where they forced people into military service without training or decent pay — cannot have made them many new friends.

All of this brings us to the two grisly events from the past week. In a series of videos (3 of them, issued in sequence), Russian soldiers are seen cutting off the genitals of a bound Ukrainian POW before dragging him around and shooting him in the head. The videos, which are available on Telegram, are beyond disturbing and nauseating. The Ukrainians quickly identified who the main perpetrator was (he did not even bother to cover his face!), and have published his name and address. I do not believe he has long to live. Beyond the sadism of the people who filmed and distributed this — and this reminds me of the atrocious video that Russian mercenaries from Wagner filmed in Syria, where they hanged a Syrian upside down, cut off his arms and legs, and then beheaded him — one has to wonder about the intended effect. One that is easy to predict is that Ukrainians will be outraged and some might become less likely to take Russian POWs (or more likely to abuse ones they get). I will return to this provocation effect, and how the Russians could hope it would benefit them, after talking about the second event.

Before that, a few words about these sorts of atrocities are in order. This is not the first video of this type to circulate on Telegram. The first rumors of grisly treatment of POWs started to come out almost immediately in early March, and it was from the Russian side. They were claiming that Ukrainians were castrating captured Russian soldiers, but no evidence was ever presented. And it was always “I heard of a person who knew the person” and said victim invariably committed suicide out of shame, so there was no way to trace or verify any of it.

Then came rumors from the Ukrainian side about atrocities committed by Russians, including raping and burning the bodies of two women fleeing occupation, among others. This time, the withdrawal of Russian forces from the north revealed evidence that some of these rumors were true. The videos and photos were widely circulated on social media and caused a backlash, with Ukrainians not giving quarter to Russian soldiers attempting to surrender after a battle. Soon, videos and photos from both sides followed.

This is where things started to change. The Ukrainian authorities quickly moved to stop any such practice (I will discuss some of the strategic reasons for that below) but the Russians did no such thing, leaving it to local commanders to deal with it as they saw fit. As a result, the atrocities on the Ukrainian side dwindled very fast while those on the Russian side became very uneven (some commanders actually shot subordinates who had been caught perpetrating these crimes while others turned a blind eye to it). After evidence from Bucha came out, there was a flare up of mistreatment of Russian POWs but the Ukrainian military command immediately took measures to stop it. The one thing that remains in common along the entire line of contact is that a soldier caught with videos or photos of some atrocities on his phone is very unlikely to survive, and may even get the same treatment as the one on the evidence found. This is true for both sides.

The other thing is that many of these atrocities are committed by inexperienced troops or people seeking revenge. Both of these factors are important about what is likely to come next. In the first case, after a particularly tough battle, inexperienced soldiers are under such intense stress that they almost literally cannot control themselves. They can murder surrendering opponents in rage, or out of fear, unless someone steps in to prevent it. These are people who often express relief afterwards about having been stopped from doing what they were trying to do. The Ukrainian troops have now seen battle for six months, and their level of professionalism has increased, with the predictable effect that such uncontrollable urges do not happen often anymore. The Russians, on the other hand, keep rushing in untrained volunteers or people pressed into service from the so-called “republics”, and so they keep exposing completely unprepared people to tremendous stress, with predictable consequences.

Another problem is that Russian propaganda has been harping about Ukrainian atrocities for eight long years, and has now stepped up the game with more imagined (mixed in with real) war crimes perpetrated against Russian soldiers. This is used in the recruitment campaigns in places like Buratya and Dagestan, where the motive to avenge the fallen and abused comrades resonates strongly. Many of these soldiers come primed to inflict tremendous harm on Ukrainians, and it is not surprising that when we see evidence of atrocities it is almost invariably associated with people from these sorts of places. (Another factors that makes a difference is that rural people from these regions are much more used to slaughtering of animals than city folk, and so far less squeamish about cutting up people.)

This second event was the explosion in the Olenovka Camp that killed 53 Ukrainian POWs and injured another 70. The Russians were quick to blame the VSU for the strike, with the argument that the Ukrainians killed the POWs because they were collaborating with the Russians. There is no evidence to support this, and much direct and indirect evidence that indicates a very dark premeditated murder by Russian authorities.

What do we know so far? First, the Olenovka Camp is very close to the frontline (less than 10 miles), which is already a violation of the Geneva Accords, which require the POWs be kept as far away from the front as possible — precisely so they do not get accidentally hit during military operations. The Ukrainians keep the Russian POWs near Lviv, for example. Thus, the first question is why the Russians decided to use Olenovka, and a good answer is that they intended to do precisely this: murder them and then blame the Ukrainians (who would have to be able to reach the facility).

You think this is far-fetched? Consider Telegram posts on pro-Russian channels from early June (that is, more than two month ago before the tragedy) — they were discussing the possibility that British intelligence was advising the VSU to murder Ukrainian POWs at Olenovka and then blame the Russians. One could believe this or one could easily see this as planting the story in advance as if the Russians had some leaks from British intel. Given that the Russian regularly blame VSU for atrocities they commit (and for which we have evidence already), it sure sounds like a prep.

But why? What would the Russians benefit from this? There are several reasons, and some come from channels that often share “insider” info that later turns out to have been correct. The basic version is that the Russians gave some of the POWs who had posted anti-Kadyrov messages/videos to the Chechens, who then transported them to Chechnya. There, they tortured them (Kadyrov himself is said to have participated, which would not have been out of character for him), and as a result several died and others were severely mutilated. The explosion at Olenevka is to cover up that war crime — the bodies were brought back and then basically incinerated to eliminate the evidence. (Other reports concur in the overal reasoning without specifically naming the Chechens as perpetrators of the torture, saying only that some POWs were tortured for information or confessions.)

The evidence for this being an inside job comes from several factors. First, the POWs had been moved to this part of the facility just recently (so it could have been prepped). Second, none of the personnel was injured. Yes, you read that right: NONE of the security personnel had any injuries in an attack that killed 53 and maimed over 70 POWs. I wonder what kind of POW camp allows well over a hundred POWs to congregate without any security personnel nearby. Third, the Russian journalists got there very quickly and in one of the videos you can hear a voice order the video operator to “not record that” before the camera quickly pans up from the attempted shot toward the floor. Fourth, in the videos one can clearly see intact beds with bodies lying in them totally burned. This does not usually happen after a strike with a rocket that would tear up everything. Experts claim that the evidence is consistent with a fire that quickly engulfed the building (most likely because it had been prepped for that already) rather than with a missile or a rocket explosion.

The Ukrainians are demanding that the Red Cross be given access to the site but the Russians have refused it, saying that they will repatriate the bodies “after investigations have concluded” (i.e., after all evidence has been tampered with). Right now, I am hearing that the UN will send a mission but I am pretty sure nothing will come of that given how the time passed since the event.

Now, one might wonder why the Russians would do such a thing even of the Kadyrov story is true — after all, there are other ways to “disappear” a few bodies: a botched escape attempt, or escaped and were never found, for instance. Why such a mass event.

And this is where I am brought back to the other video — the point is to provoke the Ukrainians, and this could have two benefits from the Russian perspective. First, if revenge-bent Ukrainians are caught abusing Russian POWs, Kyiv will lose the moral high ground that it currently commands in the West. The narrative that sustains popular support for Ukraine there is very much dependent on the perception that Ukraine is the victim of a brutal aggression, and if the VSU were to perpetrate some atrocity, this narrative can start to unravel. This would also provide a propaganda boon to the Kremlin, which will doubtless try to drown any talk about Bucha and Irpen with “told you so” about Ukrainian Nazis.

The Ukrainians must under no circumstances give in to the temptation to inflict terrible vengeance on the Russians they capture. It is, of course, morally repugnant to do so — but I cannot be lecturing Ukrainians on that. Instead, I would just stick to the strategic consequences and their undesirable effect on the war. I am troubled that on YouTube videos with people who are normally sensible, I have seen promises of bloody revenge. Or that the former leader of Azov vowed to hunt down all those responsible for the outrage. (Among the POWs were many soldiers who had surrendered at Azovstal.) I sure hope that if the Ukrainians track down the butcher from the videos and the people responsible for Olenevka, they would bring them to Ukraine to stand trial. Given the speed and effectiveness with which the Ukrainian authorities put a stop to the atrocities in early spring (even after Bucha where tempers were white hot), it appears that they understand what they must do really well.

The second benefit for the Russians would be to create anti-government feelings in Ukraine. The defenders of Azovstal — whether they were members of Azov or marines or territorial defense — are seen as heroes, and the Zelenskyy administration is regularly peppered with criticism about “abandoning” them (it did not — there were numerous attempts to rescue them, which all failed), then betraying them (it did not — the deal was that they would be kept unharmed and given medical treatment), and then not securing their release (it did not — efforts to exchange them have not stopped). Discontent with Kyiv’s insufficient effort, or at least the perception of such, is already on social media, and it often crosses into accusation of weakness. (The Vogue photo session certainly did not help in that regard. Moreover, the Russian high court declaring the Azov formation a terrorist organization might make it near damn impossible to get them back soon.) Poroshenko supporters are especially apt to inflame internal division, and this only helps the Russians.

The third benefit follows from the first. Since nobody really believes the VSU did this, Russian soldiers can fully expect the Ukrainians to mistreat POWs, which in turn would make them much less likely to surrender. This is important in light of the situation in Kherson Oblast, where morale of the Russian troops is very low. Suppose you are a contract soldier who does not want to die defending Kherson (where, after all, locals are apt to slit your throat if you try to go on a picnic with a couple of friends). In front of you is the advancing VSU and you are short on ammo and can expect little support. You could try to retreat but the bridges are impassable and if you try to cross the river on some inflatable, you will be cut down by Kadyrov’s men. If you try to surrender (I have covered in a previous post why this can be extremely difficult), who knows what enraged Ukrainians will now do to you — castration or worse. So you might as well stay and fight, hoping to come out alive.

As some Russian officers said, many of their soldiers are convinced that if the VSU captures them, they are going to castrate them or cut off their hands or heads (in some places Ukrainian partisans had done that, hanging the mutilated body of a Russian soldier by the roadside), and some even carry a special hand grenade to blow themselves up to avoid capture. No amount of talk that the VSU would not do that to them can dissuade them, apparently. Even worse, these officers report that exchange of captives — which had been relatively common during the spring, when in situation of urban combat contact is close and it’s easy to end up among enemy forces — has now become much more difficult because of this. This is something that the Russian higher command can only welcome given the morale problems with its troops.

What this means is that this already brutal war would continue getting even worse, for sure on the Russian side, and this might not be last atrocity against POWs that we are going to hear about. The realities of this war, like any other, are grim.

In the meantime, the internal situation in Russia is getting worse. Just as useful idiots and paid troubadours in the West are penning the thousandths article about how sanctions are not working or hurting the West more (France’s Marie Le Pen called for removing them, Hungary’s Orban asserted that they have failed, and Germany’s Schroeder insisted that Nord Stream 2 had to open), we know for a fact that they are working, and working very well indeed. You can read that Yale study that shows all the problems that have developed in the Russian economy, but you don’t even have to — the best indication that the sanctions are working is that Moscow has become increasingly desperate to find a “diplomatic solution” while simultaneously tightening the grip on any negative economic information. It is true that the Kremlin got a windfall from increased sales of gas and oil to the West but the reason behind the buying spree is the coming ban on Russian imports (in some cases, partial, but still quite massive) and European governments filling up reserves in anticipation of a cold winter.

The other indicator that the war is going badly for the Kremlin is the way it is now trying to sell the special operation to the masses. Meduza recently published the talking points the Kremlin sent to the mass media under its control, with instructions about how to portray the war. The main idea is to draw parallels between the special operation, the Battle of the Neva, and the conversion of Rus’ to Christianity. Most of this would be impenetrable to a foreigner albeit immediately clear to a Russian, so some explanation is in order.

According to the talking points, one must understand this war as a continuation of the thousand-year old policy of the “collective West” to attack Russia, conquer its resources, and destroy its Orthodox faith. In this view, the Orthodox faith is the reason for the Russian might — it’s the religion, apparently, that managed to create a unique Russian civilization, and united hundreds of peoples in a single state. Thus, the godless must attack that faith in order to cause the disintegration of Russia. Alexander Nevsky defeated the invading Swedes and Norwegians (the famous Battle of the Neva is only known from Russian sources, and may have been far less of a big deal than imagined in the retelling), and then the Livonian Knights (the Battle on the Ice), both in early 13th century, and thus saved Russia for Orthodoxy. (Not much emphasis is laid on him becoming a vassal of the Mongol Golden Horde.) And this faith is the source of tolerance, which is why Russia can be a multiethnic state, unlike the exclusive Western states.

(I will not bother with the total absence of evidence for these wild claims, as well as the abundant evidence to counter every single step in this ludicrous argument. These sorts of appeals are not won by academics and research.)

Ukraine is merely the latest platform from which the “collective West” has attempted to attack, subjugate, and utterly destroy Russia. The attackers are, of course, godless. This might come as a shock to Americans who are fond of imagining themselves fighting godless Russikies, but there you go. This actually explains why Russian media has been showing these absolutely cretinous videos about black magic rituals apparently practiced by the VSU — the Ukrainians are against God, which is why they are capable of any immoral act, including ritual murder. Without faith in God, they fear no divine punishment, and so are unrestrained in their hate. (This would sound familiar to any atheist living in the US, where the attitude of the religious folk is that it’s better to be a Satanist than a godless atheist.) Which, of course, explains all these atrocities they are said to have committed, including butchering their own citizens and destroying their own cities. (And yes, I am purposefully drawing parallels with this type of thinking in the US, both so that people can understand how easy it is to be seduced by it, and to show how absurd it really is: both sides being convinced the other is godless, and both pretending to be Christian.)

And who is this “collective West”? Well, whoever happens to have fought Russia from that side: the Teutonic Knights, Sweden, the Poles, Napoleonic France, Hitler’s Third Reich, and now NATO. Again, many in the West might find it difficult to understand the Western conspiracy to destroy Russia through, say, Napoleon with Britain financing every single Coalition against him, and remaining the only belligerent throughout even after Russia concluded the Peace of Tilsit, and allied itself with Napoleon against Britain and Sweden. Or same Britain and the US joining with the Russians to defeat Hitler. But please, let us not ask inconvenient questions — the important thing is to focus on the outcomes!

And the outcomes, according to the Kremlin, have always been the same: a heroic defense of Russia that re-establishes and solidifies the foundation of the glorious state. Well, not really, which is probably why World War I is missing from the list of “collective West” attacks on Russia. Now, as always, the West lusts after the resources of Russia and wants to conquer it, but now, as always, they will fail, and a new, stronger, Russia will emerge! Putin will not allow Russia to fall, and the war was a preemptive strike against the gathering storm from the West. Coincidentally (and somehow very opportunely), some archival “research” in Leningrad Oblast recently uncovered evidence that Alexander Nevsky’s original name was… Vladimir!

What is one to make of this hodgepodge of history, conspiracy, and wild fantasy? That the Kremlin knows very well how deeply in trouble it is. The parallels being drawn are for titanic struggles, not special operations. The (not so implicit) claim is that the current war is for the existence of Russia itself. And such existential struggles are supposed to involve suffering, deprivations, and losses. The propaganda is basically preparing Russians for very bad news, which will go beyond losing access to McDonald’s. Conveniently, such a war knows no boundaries, so if tomorrow the Russian armies attack southern Ukraine to capture even more territory instead of “liberating” Donbas as they were supposed to do, then it will make sense in this context.

And while the Kremlin is prepping Russians with some myths about apocalyptic struggles, the useful idiots in the West continue to do its dirty work. I will finish this comment with two of the many whose “insights” I had the misfortune of reading about.

Number one has to be Putin’s lapdog, formerly known as Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder. He made a trip to Moscow, where he met personally with Putin. He came out of the meeting armed with the exact same talking points as all other rouble-dependent Western politicians and intellectuals. Russia is ready to talk peace! (It sure is, except it’s on the same ridiculous terms as before.) The sanctions are not working, and Europe is in trouble! Open Nord Stream 2! (Gazprom is conveniently saying that it cannot install the turbine that the Canadians repaired and that is now stranded in Germany — despite a flashy visit by current Chancellor Scholz who assured everyone that it would not rbeak sanctions regime to deliver it to the Russians, which effectively scuttled any talk about increasing supplies through Nord Stream 1.)

The other useful idiot is Friedman, who peddled a lot of nonsense in his recent NYT article. Among it is the astonishing claim that there is a lot of mistrust between the Biden administration and Zelenskyy, and that it has been growing since the start of the war. I am sure quick denunciations and denials will follow, but the chutzpah to announce something like this beggars belief. And the evidence? Oh, you see, Friedman has not been personally told why Zelenskyy fired prosecutor general (who has since become Ukraine’s Ambassador to Switzerland) or the chief of counter-intelligence. Well, I have not been personally told either, but I did report on several possible reasons. And that’s that. This is the extent of this clown’s analysis.

Oh, but it does not end there! You see, Putin could use nukes! NUKES! In case you forgot about that, this has been the specialty of Kremlin propaganda for months now — scaring everyone with nukes. Never mind that recently the Russians ruled it out, and even Putin now said that no one can win a nuclear war, dialing back some of that rhetoric. I have talked before about the probability of nuclear weapon used in Ukraine is practically zero (no, I cannot rule it out fully), and that this is merely a scare tactic. But here Mr Friedman wants us to know that the Ukraine war is not over, and it’s unpredictable, and risky. Really? Who would have thought any of that?

Now, admittedly, he just threw in this nonsense as a backdrop to his larger diatribe about Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (about which he is also wrong, his references to Geopolitics 101 notwithstanding — or maybe he should have taken a more advanced course on geopolitics — but this will be another long post, so I will not discuss it here). But the lazy pontificating by Westerners who know next to nothing about about the war in Ukraine is really getting to me.

Things to watch out for: how the grain deal develops (the Russians are trying to set it up as a precedent for negotiating with Ukraine, which will be a grave mistake for Kyiv), what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan and Armenia exchanged fire after Azerbaijan conducted a special operation of its own there, both sides are blaming each other, and Azerbaijan is also blaming Russia), the Kosovo conflict with Serbia (violence has been postponed by a month after US intervention and a warning from NATO), and, of course, the US-China growing conflict over Taiwan. I will try to write something about each of these in the coming days, time-permitting.

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