Human rights association

Russian army: predetermined cruelty. Chapter 3. The discipline

The readiness of military personnel to comply with the laws and customs of war depends primarily on the state of army discipline, which must guarantee the soldiers’ respect for the norms of international humanitarian law and make it impossible for them to cause suffering to civilians in the combat zone. It is the discipline built on the principles of unity of command, the duty of a serviceman to obey the orders of his commander and fulfill the requirements of the statutes, that prevents the army from turning into an unruly armed mob.

Trained for pompous parades and outwardly impressive large-scale exercises, Russian military personnel proved unprepared for the harsh realities of a full-scale war, which was radically different from Russia’s previous fast-moving expeditionary operations against a much weaker enemy. The confidence of the soldiers in their own strength and their faith in the competence of the military leaders were quickly dispelled by catastrophic losses and failures at the front. Dispirited and demoralized professional servicemen, who were considered the elite of the Russian army on the eve of the invasion, avoided taking part in hostilities in every possible way – they damaged their own equipment, deserted and refused to obey the orders of their commanders, accusing the latter of intending to build a career at the expense of the deaths of ordinary soldiers. The military leadership, which recently called discipline “the backbone of the Russian Armed Forces,” was rapidly losing control over personnel. The inclusion of non-army units into the occupation group, lack of qualified junior commanders, bad relations between officers and rank-and-file, and well-established traditions of hazing worsened the situation. Cases of disobedience to leadership, drunkenness, fraternization, and ethnic-based conflicts between soldiers of different units became common in Russian units.

“In the Zaporizhzhia region, after an argument, the commander of a Russian tank drove his T-90 not at the enemy but at a group of the Russian Guard unit. He fired at their checkpoint and blew it up,” said the drone operator who witnessed this episode” [1].

In December 2022, eight conscripts from the Kaliningrad region escaped from a field camp near Luhansk. They reached Podilsk near Moscow and came to one of the city’s police departments. In bags, the servicemen brought their weapons – submachine guns and machine guns, which they tried to hand over to the police. The men explained their escape by the fact that they had to be sent to the front line without preparation and told about the hunger and fights of the soldiers in the unit, the drunkenness of the officers, and the commander’s threats to “take them to the forest, shoot and bury” for inappropriate behavior [2].

At the beginning of February 2023, conscripts from Tuva recorded a video message in which they accused the militants of the “people’s militia of the DPR” of beatings and abuses. “They shot at us, forced us to do push-ups. They promised that we would not get out of here alive. The military police came and also beat us,” complained one of the conscripts” [3].

Low morale, lack of motivation, and an unsatisfactory state of military discipline hindered the performance of combat tasks. Aware of the problem, Russian commanders are trying to restore their authority and force subordinates to obey. However, such a task is often solved in an illegal way – instead of using the disciplinary sanctions provided for by the statute, physical punishment, humiliation, and detention in inhumane treatment are used. In military teams, brutality became the most effective way of managing personnel.

The Russian commander punished ten soldiers for withdrawing from their position to the rear to evacuate the wounded. He put his subordinates on the ground, after which he brutally beat them with a rubber baton and kicked them. The other two soldiers held the perpetrators at gunpoint in order to suppress possible resistance. The explanations of the accused that they were only following the orders of another commander were not taken into account [4].

“I was brought to the “Wagner.” There I was beaten so hard that my face became twice as big. One said: “We don’t need you, your command has given permission to “reset you to zero.” After that, he took out the gun, reloaded it, and put it to the back of my head. He said: “Count to ten, I’ll shoot on count ten.” But he did not shoot but began to hit me on the head with the handle of the pistol. Then I was put on the ground, and they started preparing to shoot me again. Then they beat me again,” said 25-year-old lieutenant Georgiy [5].

The Russian army has probably started deploying barrier troops, according to British military intelligence. In a daily briefing published by the UK Ministry of Defense on Twitter, such units are to force Russian soldiers to advance and shoot those who retreat. According to intelligence, recently, Russian generals demanded commanders use weapons against deserters. The introduction of the practice of executions shows the lack of discipline in the Russian troops, the summary says [6].

Military personnel learn the lesson of brutality from their superiors and reproduce their it Arbitrariness breaks out of internal army relations and becomes the norm in the treatment of civilians. Fighters are guided by the logic: “If violence is applied to us, why should the civilian population of a foreign country be an exception.” The soldiers quickly stop playing their assigned role of “kind saviors of the population from the Nazis” and show their true faces as ruthless occupiers.

International humanitarian law puts responsibility for the acts and actions of military personnel to their commanders, who, due to their higher hierarchical position, have the opportunity and are obliged to prevent the commission of war crimes by subordinates. Article 87 of Additional Protocol No. 1 to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts obliges the state party to “require any commander who is aware that subordinates or other persons under his control are going to commit or have committed a breach of the Conventions or of this Protocol, to initiate such steps as are necessary to prevent such violations of the Conventions or this Protocol, and, where appropriate, to initiate disciplinary or penal action against violators thereof” [7].

However, the Russian command is concerned only with the situation at the frontline and applies punishment only to eradicate numerous cases of desertion and non-compliance with combat orders. At the same time, the duty to ensure the humane treatment of the civilian population provided by international law is blatantly ignored by military leaders.

One of the indicators of the decline of discipline in the Russian army is the widespread practice of theft and robbery of the civilian population in the occupied territories. The doctrine of “lightning victory over Ukraine” did not provide for the long-term supply of military units with supplies, ammunition, fuel and lubricants, and medicine. In the first weeks of the war, Russian soldiers faced a serious issue of the lack of a sufficient supply of food, change of clothes, medicament, hygiene products, and other basic necessities, which became the first incentive for looting and robbery. Later, this shameful phenomenon rose to an impressive scale, robberies are accompanied by murders and violence against civilians, and even high-ranking commanders take part in them.

“The guys were going from apartment to apartment and were walking out with big bags – robbery in all its glory,” a Russian military man wrote in his diary in March 2022. “Someone takes only the necessary, some take everything: from old broken telephones to plasma TVs, computers and expensive alcohol” [8].

“Deputy rear commander colonel Klobukov stole refrigerators from stores. Then we were looking for stores with sneakers and any kind of clothes – we took all this. All those goods were taken in trucks. When we arrived in Belarus, I saw those two trucks,” a soldier of the Russian 64th motorized rifle brigade, which took part in the occupation of the Kyiv Region, told journalists [9].

A video camera recorded a group of Russian servicemen driving up to a car dealership near Kyiv. They were met by the owner of the business and a 68-year-old security guard – they approached the entrance gate to the territory of the dealership with raised hands. The soldiers searched the civilians, who, after a brief conversation, treated the servicemen with cigarettes, turned around, and calmly walked back into the dealership building. Suddenly, soldiers shot those unarmed people in the back with machine guns, robbed the salon, loaded things into a car, and drove away [10].

Commanders at all levels overlook and sometimes condone and encourage the deviant behavior of their subordinates toward the civilian population. The tacit consent and solidarity of the leaders convince the soldiers of impunity and encourage them to commit new war crimes.

Iryna Didenko, a representative of the prosecutor’s office handling cases of sexual violence, points to the existence of evidence that Russian commanders knew about the rape of Ukrainian women by subordinates. In some cases, they condoned this and gave the soldiers permission to “go and relax.” In one of the episodes, which is described in the investigation record, the commander allowed his subordinates to enter the apartment building, but he himself remained outside. At the same time, the soldiers could be heard talking about women and saying: “We’ll just beat this one, and we’ll rape this one.”

Wayne Jordash, a British lawyer who consults Ukrainian prosecutors, said he saw signs of tacit consent by commanders in 30 cases he reviewed [11].

The law-abidingness of a soldier is always a reflection of the law-abidingness of his commander. Russian officers not only condoned the illegal actions of subordinates but also gave clearly criminal orders to kill and torture civilians. And although such orders, by their nature, were obviously and unconditionally outside the boundaries of law and morality, the soldiers obeyed while being aware of the illegality of their actions. Quite often, commanders personally killed and tortured civilians, setting an example for their soldiers to follow.

“We brought the civilians into the house. They had a wad of cash with them: hryvnias, dollars, and various other small things. The lieutenant colonel, who was with us, took the money for himself, gave the rest of the phones and other things to us, and said: “Shoot them.” I shot one of them. I told him: “Go ahead” – he went. I told him: “On your knees.” And then just shot a bullet in the back of his head. After that, I was shaking for a very long time,” a Russian soldier told journalists [12].

The Security Service of Ukraine released an audio recording of the occupier’s phone conversation with his acquaintance: “We were going to take up positions and arrived under the bridges. Ukrainians – military and civilians – were lying there. We were told to kill them – all those Ukrainians. Well, I thought then – maybe I should try and cut the throat? And I cut it. I just thought – when am I going to cut someone’s throat again?” [13].

On March 20, 2022, servicemen of the 7th consolidated rifle company (military unit 21005) occupied the Ukrainian villages of Andriivka and Pakul in the Chernihiv Region. The Russians kidnapped two local residents, kept them in a basement, beat them, and demanded information about civilians who owned weapons. On March 25, the company commander went into the basement and, outraged that the villagers did not tell anything, shot the men in their limbs [14].

Discipline in the armed forces is supported by the application of disciplinary and criminal sanctions, which, if necessary, correct the behavior of servicemen at all levels of the hierarchy.

Article 86 of Additional Protocol No. 1 to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts obliges the signatory state to repress violations of international humanitarian law and to ensure that military commanders who do not take all feasible measures within their power to prevent or repress the commission of war crimes by subordinates bear penal or disciplinary responsibility.

Russian legislation makes it possible to fulfill such requirements of the Protocol. In particular, Article 356 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation recognizes as a crime “the use of prohibited means and methods of waging war” and prescribes punishment in the form of imprisonment for a term of up to 20 years for “cruel treatment of prisoners of war or the civilian population, looting of national property in the occupied territory, use in armed conflict means and methods prohibited by the international treaty of the Russian Federation.”

However, Russia has yet again shown that in the war against Ukraine, it has no intention of complying with either international or its own legal rules. The gruesome massacre in Bucha arranged by Russian military personnel was not a reason for an investigation but a reason for pride for the ruling and military elite of Russia. At a time when the world was looking with horror at the photos of tortured Ukrainians and listening to the stories of those who survived, Vladimir Putin awarded the 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade, which committed atrocities in Bucha, with the honorary title. The decree states that the brigade showed “mass heroism, bravery, resilience, and courage” during the “defense of the motherland” [15]. Its commander, Azatbek Omurbekov, received the rank of colonel and was awarded the title of “Hero of the Russian Federation” – the highest state award of Russia, which is awarded for outstanding services to the state and heroic deeds [16]. The brutality of the Russian soldiers was highly appreciated and demonstrably approved by the Kremlin.

(to be continued)

The 1st chapter, “The Objectives of War” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.

The 2nd chapter, “The Ideology of War” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.


The material was prepared by experts of the Association UMDPL within the project “Documentation of war crimes committed by the Russian Federation” (The project is carried out with the financial support of NED).

We remind you that Association UMDPL is working on creating a “Black Register of Executions, Tortures and Cases of Inhumane Treatment of the Civilian Population in the Territories Temporarily Occupied since February 24, 2022.” More details here (in Ukrainian).



Other news