Russian propagandists and officials, from their leader down, are keen to argue that the war against Ukraine has “cleansed” Russian society by forcing out the “traitors” polluting the country. Those remaining have a unique opportunity to build not only a “new Russia”, but also a “new post-colonial world”, it is said.
They are right about one thing: Russia is indeed changing. But the moral, altruistic and patriotic society of the elite dream is elusive; instead, the country is increasingly suffering the consequences of the war, with a significant rise in crime and a complete blurring of moral standards.
Firstly, there’s the statistically confirmed rise in illegality. During the three months of the war, the number of thefts in stores increased by 18% and in grocery stores by 27%. At the end of May, experts also reported a surge in economic crimes related to sanctions imposed against Russia. This includes an increase in theft of budget funds associated with the public procurement system, as well as fraud and tax crimes.
Experts warn that the eventual return of at least 200,000 servicemen with experience of combat in a permissive environment for violence will make things much more serious. Lawyer Mark Feigin told Russian Voice of America that these men will come home to find, “little good awaits them in terms of life prospects. Many will return to their previous disenfranchised situation, accompanied by constant humiliation.” Social psychologist Alexei Roshchin likewise argued that unprovoked war has consequences at home. “This type of aggressive war breaks people and unleashes their darkest instincts,” Roshchin said, predicting an increase in violent crime.
Russia’s crime rate is currently much lower than in the wild days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it remains much higher than any European country and is broadly on a par with some South American states. Yet Russian experts say the reporting of white-collar crime in particular is heavily understated and that sanctions are now tempting troubled businesses into illegal behavior. The situation for Russian companies has become far worse than the post-sanctions environment of 2014, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
There is already some early evidence for this. While Alexander Grebenkin, Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, has publicly stated that the war has had no effect on crime, and the number of offenses is declining, the data cited by other Russian officials suggests this is not the case. According to the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, there has been an increase in cases of grave and especially grave crimes — murders, rapes, kidnappings — and extremist sentiments are spreading.
The General Prosecutor’s Office of Russia, in turn, announced a rise in crime among women. The most striking indicator is the severity of damage from crimes. According to the Interior Ministry, crime from January-May 2022 caused losses of 420bn rubles ($6.8bn.) Compared to 2021 figures for the same period, this is a rise of 114%.
It is early days for the consequences of the war to be fully understood, but it is clear that the authorities do not view the incarceration of criminals as a priority. In mid-October, Ukrainian military experts noted that the active recruitment of convicts into the military was corrupting the Russian army, undermining its morale, discipline, and combat effectiveness.
Not only are convicted criminals being recruited by the Wagner mercenary group, but also by the Russian Ministry of Defense. At the end of October, the State Duma of Russia finally adopted a law abolishing the ban on the mobilization of citizens who have an unexpunged or outstanding conviction for serious crimes, including terrorism, pedophilia, murder, and hijacking.
Independent journalists and human rights activists analyzed the sentences of recruited prisoners posted on the websites of North Caucasian republican courts and annexed Crimea. It turned out that, for example, a man who beat a woman to death, or a person found guilty of murder and illegal distribution of pornography, and others committing offenses of similar seriousness, had been sent to the front.
Yana Gelmel, a lawyer for the Defense of the Rights of Prisoners Foundation, says that she is aware of cases of Wagner recruiting convicts guilty of multiple cases of child sexual abuse. There is also an example of a recruit who had been sentenced for rape and murder.
Unsurprisingly, there have been media reports in recent weeks about former prisoners who have escaped and made their way back to Russia. Some are denied by the authorities, but many are not.
According to Ukrainian media reports, in early October, part of a Wagner platoon, on the notoriously bloody Bakhmut front, deserted and headed for Donetsk. Of the 12, three were caught, while the others robbed and killed two men, and also committed a series of rapes. The task of the police in capturing those who made it back to Russia has been hampered by the fact that Wagner does not provide information about the criminals it recruited.
Russians have experienced this before. The Afghan war of 1979-89 led to a steep rise in crime. After that war ended, thousands of participants in this “international campaign” ended up in prison. Some 75% of veterans’ families broke up, and 60% fell into alcohol or drug abuse. Based on these data, even Kremlin-loyal Telegram channels predict a return of the “Afghan syndrome” of high crime and social costs.
This time it could be worse. The conflict has been much bloodier than the Soviet war in Afghanistan (where around 15,000 men died in 10 years, compared with perhaps 20,000 dead in Ukraine in less than nine months in Ukraine.) One day, huge numbers of troops will return home and it is reasonable to expect that they will be no happier with the authorities that have shown no greater regard for their welfare than their Soviet predecessors.
The Russian regime cannot escape responsibility for the degradation of civil society. State propaganda has worked to dehumanize its enemies, whether Ukrainian or Western, with predictable consequences for societal acceptance of violence and cruelty. This can also be seen in the change in the tone of propaganda sites. If, at the beginning of the full-scale war, the propagandists tried to emphasize that they were fighting the “Nazi minority” in Ukraine and the “globalist governments of the West,” there is now no attempt to hide a desire to target ordinary people.
In particular, top Russian propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan have long called for the bombing of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, including power plants. Now the propagandists are openly gloating, boasting of delivering “the most powerful blow to the Ukrainian energy sector,” which is causing rolling blackouts. They acknowledge that “attacks on infrastructure will not directly affect the front line,” but argue for the targeting of civilians nonetheless.
Russian military experts openly discuss which cities should be struck first, and Telegram propaganda channels mock the freezing homeless and rape victims. Such propaganda amounts to a cult of violence and cruelty. It is doing little to foster the remnants of moral norms or the concept of law and order.
It will be a miracle if the army currently committing a wave of war crimes (a total of almost 45,000, Ukraine says) returns home to live in peace.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.