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.
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.