Drunk recruits. Insubordinate soldiers. Convicts.
They’re among hundreds of military and civilian offenders who’ve been pressed into Russian penal units known as “Storm-Z” squads and sent to the frontlines in Ukraine this year, according to 13 people with knowledge of the matter, including five fighters in the units.
Few live to tell their tale, the people said.
“Storm fighters, they’re just meat,” said one regular soldier from army unit no. 40318 who was deployed near the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in May and June.
He said he’d given medical treatment to a group of six or seven wounded Storm-Z fighters on the battlefield, disobeying an order from a commander – whose name he didn’t know – to leave the men. He said he didn’t know why the commander gave the order, but claimed that it typified how Storm-Z fighters were considered of lesser value than ordinary troops by officers.
The soldier, who requested anonymity because he feared prosecution in Russia for publicly discussing the war, said he had sympathy for the men’s plight: “If the commandants catch anyone with the smell of alcohol on their breath, then they immediately send them to the Storm squads.”
When contacted by Reuters, an officer at unit no. 40318 declined to comment on Storm-Z and ended the call. The Kremlin referred Reuters questions to the Russian defence ministry, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Russian state-controlled media has reported that Storm-Z squads exist, that they took part in intense battles and some of their members received medals for bravery, but it has not disclosed how they are formed, or the losses they take.
Reuters is the first news organisation to compile a comprehensive account of how the squads are put together and deployed, by speaking to multiple sources with direct knowledge of what is happening.
Like the soldier from unit no. 40318, the 13 people interviewed – who also include four relatives of Storm-Z members as well as three soldiers in regular units who interacted with the squads – all requested anonymity, citing fear of reprisals. Reuters verified the identities of all the fighters involved using criminal records, social media accounts, or by speaking to their fellow serviceman and their families.
The penal squads, each about 100-150 strong and embedded within regular army units, have typically been sent to the most exposed parts of the front and often sustain heavy losses, according to Reuters interviews with the people, who identified at least five Storm-Z teams fighting to repel a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and south.
Three of the five Storm-Z fighters interviewed by Reuters, and the relatives of three other Storm-Z fighters, described nightmarish engagements that saw much of their squads wiped out.
One fighter, with a conviction for theft who was recruited from prison, said all but 15 of the 120 men in his unit embedded with the 237th regiment were killed or wounded in fighting near Bakhmut in June. [Continue reading…]