Ukraine War Day #112: About Those Ukrainian Punitive Squads

Dear Readers:

Today I have this piece by reporter (and historian) Nikolai Storozhenko. It’s interesting, because it goes beyond the current news and gets into some history of the Stalin period and the Great Patriotic War. The title is:

The Ukrainian Armed Forces Have Surpassed In Cruelty Even The Stalin Punitive Squads

About that word заградотряд (“zagrad-otryad”), I am always a bit unsure how to translate into English. The second part (“otryad”) means squad. The first part (“zagrad”) comes from the Russian verb заградить (to block off, to wall off, etc.). These so-called “blocking” or “punitive” squads are a component of the anti-Soviet mythos surrounding World War II. Allegedly Stalin assigned certain units to shoot other units if they refused to advance, or if they were even thinking about giving up. A bit later Storozhenko goes into some of this history, analyzing which parts of the myth are true, which are exaggerated, was Stalin actually the guy who did this, etc. We’ll get to that.

But the main point in the here and now, is that these myths have come alive, and it’s really happening in this war, only it’s the Ukrainians who are doing this. The lede paragraph:

The armed forces of the Ukraine, including the so-called “Nationalist Battalions”, are ever more resembling not so much a military, as a purely terrorist, organization. An example of this is the use by Ukraine of the blocking squads, which annihilate those who wish to surrender. The monstrous nature of what is happening exceeds even the way the Soviet blocking squads acted during the Great Patriotic War.

Ukrainian POWs have told hair-raising stories about the Nationalist units opening fire on those who have decided to give up and surrender. According to Igor Konashenkov (spokesperson of the Russian Defense Ministry) a recent example is something that happened to the 54th Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces: a group of Ukrainian Nationalists, travelling around the front in armored cars, killed around 30 of their own guys, by shooting them in the back, as the latter attempted to cross over to Russian positions with the intention of surrendering. I had read about this incident somewhere else. It seems the Ukrainians had previously contacted the Russians by radio and made arrangements for the place and time of the surrender. Unfortunately for them, the Ukrainian Nationalist battalions got wind of their plan.

Next, The Myth

Many Russians believe that Stalin personally created the Soviet “blocking squads” who, armed with machine guns, positioned themselves behind the regular infantry and egged them forward into battle. Forward, always forward! One step back, and a bullet to the spine. There was even a TV series called Shtrafbat which immortalized this concept. From this point on, I think I’ll start calling them “rearguard defense squads”.

In reality, it was not Stalin who thought up this idea. This is actually an ancient concept. We have heard of this as early as the times of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) of Persia. Cyrus allegedly created units of his most seasoned soldiers, whose job was “to encourage those who fulfill their duty, threaten the cowardly, and kill those who turn to flee.” This exact same tactic was employed by many other great military leaders such as Chingas Khan, Frederick II, and Napoleon himself.

Croesus of Lydia led before Cyrus the Great on the capture of Sardis, c.546 BC. Croesus, 595 BC – c. 546 BC. King of Lydia. Cyrus II of Persia, c. 600 – 530 BC, aka Cyrus the Great?or Cyrus the Elder. Founder of the Achaemenid Empire. From Hutchinson’s History of the Nations, published 1915.(Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Secondly, it is not really the job of the rearguard to “egg on into battle”, that’s the job of the sergeants and other officers. And the reardguard defense squads have other assignments too, not just trying to stem off panic and flight; for example, it’s their job to protect the rear and flanks from enemy incursion.

Storozhenko debunks the myth that Soviet soldiers were always shot if they refused an order to go on the attack. Such incidents may have happened from time to time, but it was not common: “During the war they were simply turned around and sent back into the attack. According to statistics, around 90% to 95% of those detained by the rearguard defense squads, were subsequently returned to their positions even without a disciplinary warning.”

The worst cases happening right at the beginning of the war: Between June 22 and October 10 1941 a huge number 657,000 soldiers were detained by the rearguard defense units. Of which 10,201 soldiers were actually shot. Of which 3321 were shot in a firing squads in front of their comrades. But it should be noted, even these guys were not just gunned down on the battlefield: They were all sentenced by a tribunal first.

Out in the field, the rearguard units carried machine guns, but their usual practice was to shoot above the heads of the other soldiers. As a warning. And yeah, there were cases where they actually gunned some guys down right out there on the field. But this was not a systematic practice, not an everyday occurrence. The point is, that these units of the Red Army existed and acted based on the norms and regulations of the time; and they were given very specific instructions. What we see going on in the Ukrainian army is a different kind of animal altogether.

For starters, there is no law or procedure which states, that a Ukrainian soldier can be killed by his fellow soldiers just like that. Neither the Minister of Defense nor the Commander-in-Chief has signed any document permitting this kind of practice nor officially establishing such units. Nor are there tribunals in place. In general, no legal nor bureaucratic structure has been built to support this practice. The Nationalists just drive up in a car, shoot 30 soldiers, shout “Slava Ukraina” and drive away. This has literally nothing in common with anything that went on in the Soviet Red Army. And the cruelty of it surpasses the Stalinist cruelty, of which the Ukrainians like to complain.

In conclusion, it would be fair to call these units Terror Squads of the Ukrainian Nationalists.

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12 Responses to Ukraine War Day #112: About Those Ukrainian Punitive Squads

  1. colliemum says:

    Thanks, yalensis! There’s another historical parallel: that to Nazi Germany in WWII when the Allies in East and West were already fighting on German soil. The SS had groups which grabbed any soldier or soldiers they found and if they couldn’t show they were actually back to their own troop, they were hanged or shot on the spot. Those soldiers who knew there were only weeks, if not days left tried to evade being sent to certain death by changing into civilian clothes whenever they could. It was the time when the remaining over-60s and the 14- and 15-year olds*) were grabbed and sent to fight.
    Is there any difference to these Ukrie terror squads?
    *) There’s a German film showing how a group of schoolboys was sent to fight the advancing Americans. Here’s a description:ücke_(film)
    I remember watching that film when I was about that age myself. I’ve never forgotten it.

    A bit OT but worth sharing – a video about Mariupol today – it really gives hope:


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks, colliemum! Yes, it certainly warms the cockles to see those people in Mariupol marching with brooms and mops instead of guns. And cleaning up as a group, with the camaraderie, might even make it fun for some. I see some smiles there. Must give a feeling of satisfaction to be putting things back in order!


    • peter moritz says:

      It was called the Volkssturm, similar to what Elensky was or is going to do, to deal with losses of experienced groups. Those poor guys are just cannon fodder, the last foreseeably losing attempt to stop the enemy’s victory, and as such quite unethical.
      There is no chance in hell that a Volksturm with inexperienced troops will be able to stop a battle-hardened army like the Russians.


  2. peter moritz says:

    I almost couldn’t stop myself from throwing the remote at the TV, when this idiotic mouth peace Stoltenfool announced that Ukraine had to consider the loss of territory, to achieve a peace treaty or at least a cease-fire.

    I almost couldn’t stop myself from throwing the remote at the TV, when this idiotic mouth peace Stoltenfool announced that Ukraine had to consider the loss of territory, to achieve a peace treaty or at least a cease-fire.

    Are he and the puppeteers who operate his vocal cords just too stupid to see that their policies of non-negotiation under the Minsk agreements have achieved, what those negotiations should have prevented?
    Don’t they feel no shame at all for what they caused? Do they really have not an ounce of self-awareness? And those are the masters of America and Europe?

    Are we as EU citizens really that dense to accept what they did to all of us, to not grab the pitchforks and whatever weapons we can get a hold of to really decapitate those monstrous idiots? Do we really accept their utterly false narrative that caused this whole bloody mess by thinking they without penalty could ignore Russia’s concerns? And they keep governing us? And we let them?

    Mark Twain’s assessment of the French Revolution comes to mind:

    “However, we only feel horror at the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. But how bad is a quick execution, if you compare it to the slow misery of living and dying with hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? A city cemetery is big enough to contain all the bodies from that short Reign of Terror, but the whole country of France isn’t big enough to hold the bodies from the other terror. We are taught to think of that short Terror as a truly dreadful thing that should never have happened: but none of us are taught to recognize the other terror as the real terror and to feel pity for those people.”

    It is high time this, the citizen’s form of terror has to be revisited and assessed for feasibility.

    Minsk was about an autonomy, likely similar to what Crimea had before this status was threatened after the putsch in 2014, now we are talking about independent nations or eventual Russian oblasts, the loss of major parts of the Black sea coastline, etc., and a likely loss of sovereignty of Ukraine through the interference of Poland trying to grab Galicia or parts thereof.

    Again, to the world the USA/Nato have demonstrated they are incapable of thinking more than 1/2 a step ahead, assuming the destruction of Ukraine or the EU economy was not the primary task set for themselves,
    Elensky can be blamed in reality for one thing only: to be the idiot that got duped, who fell for promises by US/NATO, who will be dumped because he couldn’t complete mission impossible.
    He was lured with false promises, false assessments, false policies, and false everything including faulty weapons, like so many before him.

    Instead, to represent and act for his own nation, he choose or was pushed to be the sock puppet for his chosen masters. That quite simply makes him a traitor, a traitor responsible for thousands of dead Russians and Ukrainians, the damage to infrastructure, loss of trade, and loss of land, and internal politics left in a mess once the fighting is over.
    And he deserves what traitors get.
    Whatever traitor, who instead representing the interests of the nation, represents the interests of an oligarchy, the interest of a foreign nation or nations, or as a member of a federation of nations when their interest conflicts with those of his own country.

    And let me say that, as a socialist, I still am convinced, as Stalin was, that the goal of international socialism should not override the interest of a nation that wants to install socialism in “one country”, even if that might be tough slogging.
    First off, I think that globalism that denies cultural, and historical differences is not to be wished for. I personally enjoy the hopefully just superficial “one world culture” that seems to take hold, as propagated by the US, and inherently part of its Empire.
    Variety, as in biology, enhances the resilience of a species, and we know what monoculture leads to, in agriculture and in human societies. It stops the evolution and leads to stagnation and is very costly in the end to maintain and stop from functioning at all.

    The globalism that should be wished for is one of free flow of information and ideas, and if socialism is the goal and as Marx predicted necessary to overcome the destructive and monopolistic forces of capitalism, we should have many forms of it, developed based on the history and culture of each nation that will develop its own forms how to manage this goal of the Free Association of Free Producers.
    Rant over.


    • yalensis says:

      Excellent rant! My only addition is that mankind needs to invent a kind of pitchfork which might double as a beheading device. Like a giant spork which is also a guillotine? Combination knife and fork? A knork?


      • peter moritz says:

        “It stops the evolution and leads to stagnation and is very costly in the end to maintain and stop from functioning at all.”

        There is a negative missing here: “to maintain and stop it NOT functioning at all.”
        Happens when just ranting along.


  3. S Brennan says:

    The real cowards in the piece are the 18-30 yo males who fled now defunct Ukrainia because they had connections and money and now…cheer on, from a safe distance of course, the conscripted 30-60 yo males who lack money or connections giving up their lives in a lost cause. And oh how those young wealthy draft-dodgers can shed crocodile tears for their countrymen being torn to pieces by Russian artillery but, what they can’t do is, explain why they are so pro-war and yet so far from the battle field. Or why their fathers are getting filthy rich selling the in-flowing arms to terrorist organizations.

    Ukrainia’s cause could be best described as national self-immolation. And that the self-immolation is only being performed for the entertainment of DC’s sociopaths. As I have said before, the Romans at the coliseum were more civilized than the despicable denizens of DC.


  4. Henry Larsen says:

    > Many Russians believe that Stalin personally created the Soviet “blocking squads” ….
    > From this point on, I think I’ll start calling them “rearguard defense squads”.

    Maybe not the best choice of name. I’ve seen other sources calling them ‘barrier squads’ and I think that’s an appropriate name. The problem with ‘rearguard defense squads’ is that ‘rearguard’ has a particular military meaning. It refers to a detachment deployed to protect the withdrawal from engagement (and/or retreat) of the main force by halting / delaying the enemy pursuit. You wouldn’t have a ‘rearguard’ behind the lines whilst your forces are _attacking_.


  5. Bukko Boomeranger says:

    What do you have against Stalin?!? The man, the myth,the terror! You’re making him seem so… average. Not cuddly. The Man of Steel will never be warm and fuzzy. But your history, with all these egg-headed facts, doesn’t hold a bar to the sadistic tyrant I read about in so many World War II books. Which were mostly written by authors from the (western) Allies. Altho I think Ol’ Joe came in for some stern treatment in the latter books of “Quiet Flows the Don.” Been years since I read those, so I could be erroneous. But you’re contradicting Solzhenitsyn. And he’s never wrong, is he?


    • yalensis says:

      Oh goodness, Solzhenitsyn was the kind of ideological troll who thought Tsar Nikolai II should have fought harder against the Germans in WWI. And blamed the Jooooz for everything that went wrong.
      Anyhow, I tend to somewhat defend Stalin against the red-baiters, but I certainly have no use for the guy myself. One of my ancestors was liquidated by Stalin, and he totally didn’t deserve that, even though he wasn’t a saint himself.
      Still, family aside, my biggest beef against Stalin is how he just slaughtered most of the original Bolsheviks and anybody in the Party or army who stood in his way; or who he thought could be a threat. The guy truly was a murdering egomaniac, so it says something that the Westie propagandists have to exaggerate and make him even worse than he actually was.

      My older readers know that I have a profound dislike for Stalin, it caused me some polemics and loss of friends over the years, because there are still some Stalin true-believers out there. If you’re interested in some of that Soviet history, I wrote a lot of pieces about Trotsky, Stalin, Tukhachevsky, Uborevich, etc. For example, just last year this zillion-part piece on Uborevich, and how he got screwed over by Voroshilov. (Stalin and his monkey-sidekick Voroshilov also really harmed the Red Army on the eve of war, it goes without saying!)


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