How Putin’s Stoking of the Ashes of War Could Char Russian Resolve

A sculpture of a mother holding her dying son in Russia's Federal Military Memorial Cemetery. Courtesy of Andrey Shevchenko / Alamy Stock Photo

Footage of mobile crematoria rolling into Ukraine has sent chills down the spine of Europe, but their presence informs us about the Russian state’s attitude to mass loss – information which can be utilised in support of Ukraine.

On 23 February, it was reported that Russian forces deployed to Ukraine could be followed by mobile crematoria, perhaps as an attempt to disguise the number of casualties inflicted. These concerns have since been realised, with footage of this controversial equipment in transit released by the Ministry of Defence. With approximately 60% of Russia’s land combat forces deployed to the borders of Ukraine, this is a chilling development.

Michael Day, writing for inews, suggested that ‘the prospect of Russian public revulsion at the sight of soldiers returning from Ukraine in body bags might do more to deter an outright invasion than the threat of Western sanctions’. Framing the potential for mass loss in the context of deterrence is important, however, it is difficult to deter a conflict which has already begun. Despite these factors, the potential for death and the apparent preparation for mass death remain an important development which can be utilised by allied forces or governments in supporting Ukraine.

Years of public polling have informed us that the majority of the Russian population has long been against the invasion of Ukraine, and remains so, informed by a societal culture of casualty aversion shaped by a multigenerational memory of brutal losses in war. President Vladimir Putin’s instruction of his armed forces does not appear informed by this aversion to military deaths, meaning that the deployment of crematoria is perhaps indicative of a government which has already accepted the likelihood of significant losses, and has invested in the development of structures and equipment to manage the reception to this. The knowledge that Ukraine is facing an armed force which may have been instructed to proceed whatever the human cost should inform the allied civil-military response.

That said, this is not a new approach and appears to be in keeping with the state attitude to fallen soldiers seen in recent and historical conflicts. Hints that the Russian state has been preparing for mass losses in a military context have also been hidden in plain sight for some months now.

Preparing for Mass Loss

On 13 September 2021, the Order of the Federal Agency for Technical Regulation and Metrology approved and put into effect a document focused on the urgent burial of bodies in war and peacetime. The document describes how and where mass graves should be created, who will fund and deliver the work, and what supplies should be procured in advance, such as coffins, PPE, body bags, chlorinated lime (used as a disinfectant) and organic chemicals used to improve soil quality. This was reported within Russian media in December and came into effect on 1 February 2022. It would be easy to dismiss the document as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, given international reporting on the lack of space within Russian graveyards to accommodate victims of the virus, and an admission of underreporting the number of coronavirus casualties by over two-thirds. However, it is important to note that such a document never existed under the Soviet Union, or in previous conflicts which resulted in Russian fatalities, even where there had been a significant public reaction to these deaths.

The knowledge that Ukraine is facing an armed force which may have been instructed to proceed whatever the human cost should inform the allied civil-military response

Even prior to the official Russian crossing of the Ukrainian border this month, US President Joe Biden had warned that Russia had begun to transport supplies of blood towards the border, highlighting that ‘you don’t need blood unless you plan on starting a war’. Ukraine’s security agency also reported that 45,000 body bags had been sent to the front, in line with the new policy guidelines on urgent burial. The portable cremation units bolster the ability to rapidly respond to mass loss, though their deployment has greater implications than a simple acceptance of impending loss at scale.

This equipment could be used to rapidly dispose of both military as well as civilian bodies following indiscriminate Russian attacks, providing the Russian state with the ability to hide war crimes. While any fatality is extremely painful for the family experiencing loss, the crematoria can remove vital evidence from the battlefield and with it, the ability of the international community to intervene and convict. However, the use of crematoria could have even greater consequences for Russia at home and should play a vital role in any response.

The Russian Culture of Responding to Military Deaths

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, there were many reports of Russian soldiers being buried in unmarked graves. This was an attempt to hide the fact that Russia had been operating in Ukraine, with many deaths blamed on ‘individuals who had wandered across the border’. Where marked graves were located, reporters were threatened and the markers were removed. Russian media reported tales of conscripts being deployed abroad and soldiers being sent ‘for training’ only to find themselves operating within Ukraine; personnel were being sent to fight without prior knowledge ‘as members of an illegal military formation’. These reports did little to change what was happening on the ground. It seems that the same tactics are being used again, with Russian media reporting cases of soldiers caught in Ukraine who had not been informed they were being sent there.

It appears that the only group able to apply meaningful pressure in this area has been the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, a group founded in 1989 which has been consistently vocal since its establishment. In 2014, Valentina Melnikova, responsible secretary of the committee and an active member of the defence ministry’s public council, accused Putin of violating international law by forcing soldiers to fight illegally in Ukraine, sacrificing their lives for Russia ‘while mothers receive coffins with their sons, anonymously’. When journalists approached parents, they refused to give comment as the information was ‘classified’, which suggests that families were being pressured, bribed or threatened; this was also reported during the more recent conflict in Syria. Putin would later introduce a decree which legalised the withholding of information on military deaths.

The practice of withholding this information is a longstanding feature of Russian military history, as is the organisational failure to treat the remains of fallen soldiers with respect in all cases. During the Russo-Japanese war, corpses were used as sandbags or catapulted into enemy lines. During the First World War, many soldiers were sent over the tops without rifles, and inadequate resources were provided to bury those used as cannon fodder. In the 1980s, the arrival of sealed zinc coffins (to hide the smell of decay) from the war in Afghanistan came to be known as the ‘river of the dead’, and the repatriation to the Soviet Union of the ‘zinky boys’ persisted for the duration of the war, and for years after.

The practice of withholding information on deaths is a longstanding feature of Russian military history, as is the organisational failure to treat the remains of fallen soldiers with respect in all cases

Rather than seeking to change this culture, it seems that Putin’s Russia has attempted to reframe the glory of loss. In 2013, a Federal Military Memorial Cemetery (FMMC) was opened with an inaugural burial. The cemetery is richly decorated, uniquely in Russian monumental architecture. Acting as both a military cemetery and a national pantheon, the FMMC includes funeral houses, a memorial hall, biblical texts and bronze sculptures of Russian warriors. At the end of the burial zone, a large sculpture of a mother holding her dying warrior son overlooks the ceremonial area. More recently, the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was consecrated on 14 June 2020 as part of the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (the Second World War); it opened on 22 June, the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow. Though the attitude to death in service does not appear to have changed in practice, this marks a shift from the Soviet Union, blending militarism, patriotism and Orthodox Christianity. The national cemetery and cathedral feel like an attempt to place moral weight on military sacrifice, as was previously forced upon Germany and France in response to the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars, and later the British Empire during the First World War. However, despite the obvious visual splendour of these architectural feats, even a building with the best acoustics cannot drown out the voices of angry, grieving mothers.

In 2014, Melnikova reported the plight of Russian families who travelled to Ukraine to look for their sons, husbands, brothers and friends in ‘the way relatives previously looked for their children in Afghanistan, Karabakh and Chechyna’. If Russia experiences heavy losses, we should expect to see such a response again, particularly if it appears that Russian remains have been cremated, affecting Russia’s Orthodox population (which prohibits cremation) most acutely. Mothers may not only prove a vital source of information for allies, but should also be viewed as potential allies themselves. The Russian population has consistently polled against an invasion of Ukraine, and during the current conflict we have witnessed scenes of public protest across Russian cities; the population is more casualty-averse than the regime. This demonstrates a weak point which can and should be exploited, despite the sensitivity of this issue. Ben Stanley of SWPS University of Sciences and Humanities Warsaw has reported that Ukraine has set up a hotline to provide Russian parents with information about their sons. While it is unclear at present who set up this hotline, someone has clearly recognised the moral and strategic value of engaging with the plight of worried families. These efforts should be supported wherever possible.

Why is This Important to Allied Forces?

We know that Russia has a history of underreporting or denying loss in emergency situations, such as war or the pandemic. If these trends continue, allies and international observers will struggle to provide an accurate report of Russian dead. The deployment of mobile crematoria to Ukraine suggests that this issue will become even more complicated, particularly if the remains of Ukrainian soldiers and/or civilians are disposed of in this way. Such actions will be deeply painful for all, and the memory of loss and blood spilt will likely hang over Europe for decades to come. Operationally, these issues typically fall behind the priority of defending territory, and for good reason, but in the modern age of hybrid warfare, they can be utilised within an information campaign.

Civilian and military media structures across alliances should work to ensure the potential for mass loss, and more specifically, the potential for mass burials and cremations in foreign fields, is communicated to the Russian public. As much of the fighting is now in urban areas, it is likely that losses will be high. If Russia is successful in occupying Ukraine, the potential for insurgency will result in further deaths, especially if Western governments arm the Ukrainians. This information should be targeted at families, activists, and most importantly, groups focused on the voices of mothers, such as the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. Outputs should be focused on both physical and digital media to ensure that information reaches everyone from the most tech-savvy city dweller to the elderly technophobe living in a rural area with poor access to internet. Social media will play a crucial role in such a strategy. Politicians may be able to ban national broadcasts from other countries within their borders, but few countries are able to defend against the sheer volume of content which can be shared within seconds through social media. The availability of information, photos and videos on social media will verbally arm reporters and activists within Russia and will undermine Russian government attempts to conceal dark truths.

This may seem like a soft, non-martial response to a violent, physical threat; however, a structured, tailored and targeted information campaign has the potential to undermine Putin’s support within his own country. This could ultimately create an unsustainable domestic situation within Russia, making a continued military campaign unviable even before heavy losses are incurred. Ultimately, the apparent acceptance of military deaths at scale by Russia against the will of its population has revealed a weakness which we should not hesitate to exploit.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Sarah Ashbridge

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