The British Defense Ministry reported on Friday that the Russian military has likely begun deploying so-called barrier troops behind front lines in Ukraine with orders to shoot deserters. “Due to low morale and reluctance to fight, Russian forces have probably started deploying ‘barrier troops’ or ‘locking units’” the ministry said on its Twitter feed where they report intelligence gathered about the war in Ukraine.
The Defense Ministry regularly couches its reports in language using “probably” and “likely” to reflect the uncertainty of intelligence about Russian intentions, and to acknowledge the rapidly shifting situation for both the Russian and Ukrainian armies engaged in the conflict, which is now in its 255th day.
“These units threaten to shoot their own retreating soldiers in order to compel offensives and have been used in previous conflicts by Russian forces. Recently, Russian generals likely wanted their commanders to use weapons against deserters, including possibly authorizing shooting to kill such defaulters after a warning had been given. Generals also likely wanted to maintain defensive positions to the death.”
The British Defense Ministry has been one of the most accurate sources of reporting on the war since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24. They have predicted sharp turns in the war, such as the Russian retreat from the area around Kyiv and were correct in their assessment that Ukraine would re-take vast swaths of its eastern flank recently.
Reports of Russian blocking units and problems with deserters come at a time when the Russian army has suffered continual defeats in the region west of Kherson, the port city in Ukraine’s south which Russia has occupied since early in the war. Vladimir Putin himself warned today that civilians in Kherson should leave the area. In a Moscow meeting with pro-war right-wing political allies, Putin said, “Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer.” Putin’s statement is particularly ominous, given his previous threats to employ battlefield, or tactical, nuclear weapons in the conflict with Ukraine.
Reports that the Russians were pulling out of Kherson were confirmed yesterday when Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, gave an interview to the state-owned television network RT. “We have to take some very difficult decisions now, whatever our strategy might be. And some people might be afraid to recognize things. But for me it is very important to try to say at the moment, people, please go over to the east bank. You will be in a far safer position.”
Stremousov was referring to the east bank of the Dnipro River, which divides a large area of the Kherson region from the city itself. The Russian-appointed administrator also appeared to predict a retreat by Russian units from the positions they have long held on the west bank of the Dnipro River, “Most likely our units, our soldiers, will leave for the left (eastern) bank,” Stremousov said.
A report in The Times of London this morning also seemed to confirm Kherson’s Russian-appointed administrator’s grim assessment: “Russian commanders have fled the city, captured during the early days of the invasion, leaving ‘demoralized and leaderless’ conscripts to face a Ukrainian advance,” the paper reported.
Previously, Kremlin spokesmen have denied reports that there would be a retreat from Russian positions currently held on the west bank of the Dnipro. There were no comments from the Kremlin about Stremousov’s remarks in the interview on the RT network.
Britain’s Evening Standard weighed in this morning with a different sort of report about Russian intentions in Kherson: “Speculation swirled over whether Russia was indeed pulling out, after photos circulated on the Internet showing the main administrative building in Kherson city with Russia’s flag no longer flying atop it. Ukraine said those images could be Russian disinformation.”
A spokesman for the southern command of the Ukrainian army told the Standard that Ukraine was looking at the images on the Internet as a Russian trap. “This could be a manifestation of a particular provocation, in order to create the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them, while they are preparing for street battles,” said Natalia Humeniuk, the Ukrainian military spokesman.
It's never a good sign when the Russian army starts moving its so-called blocking forces into position behind its frontline units. The last time blocking units were deployed was during the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, when the infamous Order Number 227 was given to the Soviet army fighting the Germans there: “Not a step back.” Military historians disagree about how many Soviet soldiers were either arrested or shot by NKVD blocking units or SMERSH counterintelligence operatives.
Some historians contend that over the course of the war, hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were either arrested or shot for desertion. One report by a Russian historian contends that 140,755 Russian soldiers were detained as they fled the battlefields around Stalingrad. As many as 1,000 were executed and 3,000 were arrested and sentenced to so-called penalty units. The rest of those detained were either sent back to their units or more likely used as replacements for other Russian army forces.
It is known that Stalin ordered all documents from the Soviet military during the war, including diaries and personal notebooks, to be turned over to the NKVD, the so-called People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, a quasi-police force that built and administered forced labor camps that became known as the GULAG. The NKVD also carried out mass-executions of Soviet citizens considered disloyal to the Kremlin under Stalin.
During the last 24 hours, Russian forces launched three missile attacks on civilian targets, as well as 16 air-attacks and 40 episodes of artillery shelling on Ukrainian cities, according to the Ukrainian defense ministry. Ukrainian aircraft made 12 strikes on Russian areas where soldiers and equipment were concentrated, according to Ukraine’s government.
Meanwhile Netflix talk show host David Letterman was in Kyiv last night interviewing President Volodymyr Zelensky for an upcoming episode of his show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. With so much uncertainty surrounding reports about the war, it is more than probable that at least that much can be confirmed as fact.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission from Lucian Truscott Newsletter