Russia is punishing drunk and mutinous soldiers by sending them to their deaths in Storm-Z human shield squads.
The units fight in the most dangerous areas of the front line, and are often sent over the trenches on suicide missions in waves ahead of regular soldiers and heavy armour.
Although the squads are largely made up of former convicts seeking a pardon, regular soldiers said that members of their units had been ordered to join for being drunk on duty, using drugs and disobeying orders.
“If the commandants catch anyone with the smell of alcohol on their breath, then they immediately send them to the Storm squads,” one soldier told a Reuters investigation.
According to Russian military legislation, a soldier can only be transferred to a penal unit if convicted by a military court.
However, a Storm-Z fighter said that he had no knowledge of court hearings taking place, while a soldier belonging to unit 40318 said that there were no court hearings involved in these transfers.
One regular soldier deployed near the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut said that “Storm fighters” were seen as “meat”.
He added that he had disobeyed an order from his commander to abandon a group of six or seven wounded Storm-Z fighters on the battlefield, instead giving them medical treatment.
The squads each have about 100 to 150 men and are embedded within regular army units. At least five such groups have been tasked with repelling Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south and east of the country.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian investigative outlet, said that the squads were useful because they could be deployed as expendable infantry in “the most dangerous parts of the front”.
One soldier said all but 15 of his unit’s 120 men, embedded with the 237th regiment, were killed or wounded in fighting near Bakhmut in June.
A group of some 20 fighters on the southern front in Zaporizhzhia refused to return to the battlefield in June, claiming that they were badly supplied and neglected.
“On the front line, where we’ve been, we did not get deliveries of ammunition,” a member of the squad said in a video published online.
“We did not get water or food. The injured were not taken away: still now the dead are rotting.”