Drunk recruits, insubordinate soldiers, and convicts.
They're among hundreds of military and civilian offenders who’ve been pressed into Russian penal units known as "Storm-Z" squads and sent to the frontlines in Ukraine this year, according to 13 people with knowledge of the matter, including five fighters in the units.
"Storm fighters, they're just meat," said one regular soldier from army unit no. 40318 who was deployed near the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in May and June.
He said he'd given medical treatment to a group of six or seven wounded Storm-Z fighters on the battlefield, disobeying an order from a commander —whose name he didn't know — to leave the men. He said he didn't know why the commander gave the order, but claimed that it typified how Storm-Z fighters were considered of lesser value than ordinary troops by officers.
The soldier, who requested anonymity because he feared prosecution in Russia for publicly discussing the war, said he had sympathy for the men's plight: "If the commandants catch anyone with the smell of alcohol on their breath, then they immediately send them to the Storm squads." When contacted by Reuters, an officer at unit no. 40318 declined to comment on Storm-Z and ended the call. Russian state-controlled media has reported that Storm-Z squads exist, that they took part in intense battles and some of their members received medals for bravery, but it has not disclosed how they are formed, or the losses they take.
Reuters is the first news organisation to compile a comprehensive account of how the squads are put together and deployed. Like the soldier from unit no. 40318, the 13 people interviewed requested anonymity, citing fear of reprisals.
Reuters verified the identities of all the fighters involved using criminal records, social media accounts, or by speaking to their fellow serviceman