By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion
“Keep going until you’re killed.”
That’s what Andrei Medvedev recalls being told by his commanders at the Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary army that recruits people like him out of prison to wage the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
Medvedev is unusual in that he not only lived to tell the tale but somehow escaped to Norway. Most others in his situation aren’t so lucky. As the war approaches its first anniversary, increasing numbers of Russians in Ukraine — both regular soldiers and Wagner mercenaries — are being treated by their superiors as “cannon fodder.” Barely trained and often badly armed, they’re ordered to throw themselves at the more hardened Ukrainian defenders, in a cynical tactic based on overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers.
Another name for this approach is “human-wave attacks.” They’ve been a tragically recurring feature of modern warcraft; from the trenches of World War I to the Soviet onslaught against the Finns and Germans in World War II, from the Chinese assaults on South Korean and American troops in the Korean War to the Iranian charges against the Iraqis in the 1980s.
For attackers and defenders alike, these “waves” represent unfathomable horror. Survivors invariably clutch at non-human — and therefore dehumanizing — metaphors in describing the experience, so that it’s easy to forget that the waves, surges and tides consist not of water molecules, but of frightened or delirious young men or boys.
“They were like a tide, ceaselessly crashing on the shore, one after another,” a South Korean veteran later said about a Chinese human-wave attack in 1951. “They had no guns, only grenades, so they needed to get within 25 meters of us. We were firing all the time, yet they kept coming and coming. Their faces were expressionless. The barrels of our machine guns were turning red and warping from the overheating.”
To get young men to hurl themselves into the hail of enemy bullets and near-certain death appears to require either or both of two conditions. One is fanaticism. The Chinese in the Korean War were fired by Maoist revolutionary fervor. The Iranian youths running into Iraqi artillery and gas were sure they had “passports to paradise” and were becoming martyrs.
The alternative prerequisite is terror; of somebody and something even worse than the enemy soldiers in front: the commanders in the rear who gave the order. One consistent element in human-wave attacks is that the superiors who seal the boys’ fates make clear that turning around during the assault will lead to an even more certain, and even more gruesome, death.
Do human-wave attacks ever make military “sense”? It’s hard to say, and therefore unlikely. The Soviets eventually prevailed against the Germans — with millions of casualties — but not against the Finns. The Chinese and North Koreans reversed the American-led advance northward on the Korean peninsula, but only won a stalemate that continues to this day. The Iranians achieved nothing at all, only dragging the war into an eight-year horror that ended in a ceasefire.
What, then, are the Russians hoping to achieve? Their cannon-fodder strategy on the Ukrainian front, in places like Bakhmut and elsewhere, appears aimed at wearing out the more determined but less numerous Ukrainians, while keeping the Kremlin’s crack units in reserve for a breakthrough, should that opportunity arise.
Obviously, this tactic implies a mind-boggling callousness and cynicism on the part of the Russian command. That includes everybody from the army’s top brass to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin confidante who founded and runs the Wagner Group, and of course their common warlord, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These men have not only been waging a genocidal war against Ukrainian civilians. They’ve also been sacrificing the youth of their own country; many drafted from ethnic minorities in remote regions or plucked by Prigozhin right out of prisons. There are no reliable numbers. But American officials estimate that the Russians have already lost about 200,000 dead or wounded in the war, with the rate accelerating to several hundreds every day.
The Ukrainians are losing fewer fighters, but also have a smaller population of new soldiers to draw on. In the Kremlin’s diabolical arithmetic, that apparently validates the strategy of human-wave attacks.
“The Chinese treated their soldiers as bullets, not as humans,” that South Korean veteran recalled. We could say the same today about Putin. As the massive offensives of spring draw nigh, let the whole world — even and especially including Russians — be clear about whom the Ukrainians are fighting and the Russians are serving: a man to whom human life means nothing.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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