Soldiers in Russian penal units face a nightmare, caught between their own leaders and Ukrainian guns. It was never any secret that the Russian army treats its "Shtorm-Z" units as cannon fodder, just like Wagner did before them. Intelligence reports indicated that, initially, the Russians planned an elite set of units. But as the war got worse for Russia, the army pivoted and instead now uses them in human wave attacks.
Prison convicts and soldiers punished at other units get sent to the penal units. Because they aren't trusted with even tactical decisions, the men are lined up and sent forward with threats of murder if they deviate from their line or retreat. And new reports indicate that leaders send them back into the breach with minimal medical care, potentially even after amputations and other gruesome injuries.
"Ukrainians are mowing them down."
King's College London Professor of Defense Studies Michael Clark recently described the plight of Russian Shtorm-Z unit prisoners this way:
"As Wagner used to say to them, 'You will go forward along the line we prescribe for you. If you deviate from that line, we will shoot you. If you come back or retreat, we will shoot you. If you disobey an order, we will shoot you,' and they do. And so these poor guys have got no choice but to carry on."
Once the Ukrainians realized that Shtorm-Z soldiers couldn't deviate from their path of advance, they learned to exploit it. They concentrate fire on the men, knowing they cannot turn back or maneuver without risking Russian guns firing on them as well. And so very few men from the penal units make it through any given advance.
But it now appears that even the seriously wounded get forced back into the fray.
Russian penal unit wounded
Now, a December 18 intelligence update from the U.K. Ministry of Defence illuminates what happens to the wounded.
"Members of Russian Shtorm-Z units are highly likely being returned to combat duties with unhealed wounds, and even after limb amputations," the update said. "This follows credible reports that members of Shtorm-Z, Donetsk militias, and Wagner Group have frequently received minimal or no treatment."
Leaders often don't give prisoners in the units the paperwork necessary to access military hospitals.
So, for a Russian convict, the choices suck. Either increasingly bad treatment in Russian prisons, or try their chances for a pardon by fighting in Ukraine for Shtorm-Z. Meanwhile, a Russian soldier who back-talks an officer can find themselves in the same spot.
Either way, they find themselves caught between the guns of their fellow Russians and those of the Ukrainians. They either rush in a straight line into the teeth of Ukrainian defenders, or they deviate and catch fire from ahead and behind.
Either way, those unlucky enough to survive get rudimentary medical care and are sent back into the grinder.
Logan was an Army journalist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now, he’s a freelance writer and live-streamer. In addition to covering military and conflict news at WeAreTheMighty, he has an upcoming military literacy stream on Saturdays in 2024 on Twitch.tv/logannyewrites.