WWII's Nazi Ghosts Haunt And Torment Ukraine| MENAFN.COM

Wednesday, 01 February 2023 06:36 GMT

WWII's Nazi Ghosts Haunt And Torment Ukraine

(MENAFN- Asia Times)

As its shock troops battle to storm the defenses of the strategic Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Russian private military contracting firm the Wagner Group is coming under fire on different fronts.

news from the central african republic states that an airfield used by the Russian mercenary unit came under bombing attack from an unidentified jet fighter on Monday.

Separately, us media report that Washington, seeking pressure points on Moscow, is considering dubbing the Wagner Group – widely alleged to be a deniable operations unit that carries out the Kremlin's dirty work both near and far – a“foreign terrorist organization.”

But none of these matters were what raised the hackles of Douglas Nash, a US historian who was putting the finishing touches to a new book covering nazi germany's most notorious combat unit , when he viewed recent Ukraine war news.

“When I saw it, I was appalled,” Nash, a retired US Army colonel and himself a veteran of three wars, told Asia Times.

The footage that stunned Nash was of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner's chief executive, speaking to assembled prisoners in the yard of a Russian penitentiary. The ex-felon, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, was offering the prisoners pardons in return for six months of frontline service with the Wagner Group in Ukraine.

Nash, himself a US Army combat veteran and retired colonel, was appalled for two main reasons. First, the newsreel made clear how murderous the fighting in Ukraine has been for Russia's regular forces.

“It dawned on me that the Russians must have suffered a far higher casualty rate than they have admitted,” said Nash, a Pulitzer nominee whose recent works have covered armored warfare and Germany's Waffen SS on World War II's Eastern Front.“Taking in 'volunteers' from prisons is an act of desperation.”

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin's operations, including the Wagner Group private military company, are believed to be closely intertwined with Kremlin interests. Image: Facebook

Having formerly recruited ex-members of elite Russian units, Wagner now seeks lower-grade fodder to feed to the cannons outside embattled Bakhmut.

“My thoughts centered around how desperate the Russian military must be if one of their leading and most effective military organizations – albeit a private army – has to resort to such actions to fill its ranks,” Nash said. 

The second thing that triggered Nash was the practice of recruiting imprisoned criminals for combat recalled the practice of the historical figure who is the central personality in his upcoming work: Dr Oskar Dirlewanger, a Nazi officer who recruited criminals to don SS uniforms and fight in the ranks of the eponymous Dirlewanger Brigade.

Dirlewanger was a tough, veteran soldier – and an alcoholic, a sadist, a convicted child rapist and a likely psychopath. His unit has rape, torture and mass murder to its discredit; so vile was its behavior that it is difficult to write about its excesses even today.

Yet, Dirlewanger's sinister shadow does not loom exclusively over the Russian side of the front lines.

The association of some Ukrainian combat units with the Nazi SS – in terms of their insignia, and in some cases, behavior – is by now well-documented. Even so, David Park, a retired US Army major, was dumbfounded to see the crossed grenade patch of Dirlewanger's band adorning a Ukrainian sleeve.

“For a unit to openly wear the Dirlewanger patch, knowing what it stands for, shows the level of Nazi inculcation and acculturation that has occurred in the Ukrainian Army up and down its chain of command,” said Park.

More broadly, the savagery unleashed – from the deployment of criminals to the throat-cutting of captured personnel to the razing of civilian energy infrastructure at the onset of winter – raises troubling questions about the evolving nature of the Ukraine war.

Dirlewanger and Wagner

Dirlewanger's unit originally comprised convicted game poachers, who, it was believed, possessed ideal skills to track Soviet partisans. As it grew, it recruited from among disgraced troops, imprisoned felons, concentration camp inmates – even the criminally insane.

In Belorussia, the brigade's counterinsurgency missions turned up thousands more dead“partisans” than captured weapons. Amid 1944's Warsaw Rising, it participated – alongside renegade Russians and Azeris – in the biggest civilian mass killing of World War II, when some 50,000 Polish civilians were murdered in the Wola Massacre.

In Warsaw, Dirlewanger's record included the incineration of three hospitals, complete with patients, and the murder of babies with bayonets.

There is poetic justice in the end of both unit and leader. Fighting the Red Army at war's end, the brigade was annihilated. Dirlewanger is believed to have been beaten to death by released Polish prisoners.

In 1985, the unit was resurrected on screen in Belorussian auteur Elen Klimov's traumatic masterpiece“Come and See.” The film's climax – the liquidation of a village by SS troops who herd the populace into a church, set it alight with flamethrowers and grenades, then mow down escapees with machine guns – is precisely based on Dirlewanger's operating procedures.

Although Dirlewanger is not mentioned, the SS commander in the film oversees the slaughter while nursing a possum on his shoulder – recalling Dirlewanger's pet monkey.

Wagner Group has nowhere near this level of misconduct to its discredit. Even so, correspondences between the Dirlewanger Brigade and the PMC are striking.

Just as Dirlewanger was a highly experienced soldier, who had fought in World War I and the Spanish Civil War, Wagner's founder is believed to have had extensive military experience.

Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of GRU-Spetznaz (military intelligence-special forces), was a veteran of the Chechen Wars who missed combat. Uktin is a lover of not leaving the shadows under any circumstances,” according to an exhaustive 2018 report by underground russian-language online media daily storm .“The available information about Utkin is fragments of a mosaic that still cannot be put together.”

Utkin was active in the Hong Kong-listed Moran Security Group and is believed to have been a key figure in recruiting and commanding Russian mercenaries in Crimea, Donbas and Syria.

His unit was originally dubbed the“the Slavonic Corps,” but Utkin is“fond of the history of the Third Reich,” Daily Storm alleges in its report. Online images show Utkin sporting SS tattoos, though these are unconfirmed. What is clearer is that the company's current brand stemmed from Uktin's call sign, named after German composer Richard Wagner.

Certainly, Wagner's music stirs military hearts. His“Ride of the Valkyries” famously accompanied a US heliborne assault in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic“Apocalypse Now.” 

Decades earlier, the same piece had been used by Nazi propagandists as a soundtrack for footage of Stuka dive bombers and was chosen as the regimental march of the UK's Parachute Regiment.

The Wagner Group's fighters are often referred to as Russia's 'shadow warriors.” Image: Twitter / Salika

But Wagner's personage is controversial. Not only was he Hitler's favorite composer but he also was a noted anti-Semite who shared Nazi ideas of racial purity. Due to this notoriety, as recently as 2018, Israel's public broadcaster was obliged to issue an apology after airing a Wagner piece.

Wagner-lover Utkin certainly has high-level connections: the kremlin confirmed his presence at a 2016“Heroes of Russia” reception, which praised those who had shown courage in battle.

What is less clear is how and why oligarch Prigozhin took over the Wagner helm. Such firms are – or were – technically illegal under Russia's criminal code. What is known is that Uktin was employed by one of Prigozhin's legitimate companies, Concord, which provides services including catering and consulting, in 2017.

a 2020 joint investigation by bellingcat, the insider and der spiegel suggests Utkin was largely a frontman and field commander. It was Russian military intelligence officers – allegedly impressed by the flexible and deniable nature of private military companies such as South Africa-based Executive Outcomes – who requested that Prighozin assume the funding and management of Wagner.

The probe found that Prigozhin's“disinformation, political interference and military operations are tightly integrated with Russia's Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU.”

Managing a mercenary force fits Prigozhin's modus operandi. The entrepreneur, who runs a range of companies, is an associate of Putin and, according to the probe by Bellingcat and others, has logged multiple phone calls with senior Russian officials, including those from military intelligence. He has also been indicted in the us for 2016 electoral interference , allegedly to assist Donald Trump.

Many rumors were substantiated in September when Prigozhin mentioned the name“Wagner” during his recruiting drive at the Mari El prison colony. And last month, the formerly deniable firm publicly opened a flashy hq in st petersburg.

Like Dirlewanger, Prigozhin appears to be a dangerous“can-do” man, capable of dubious tasks. Like the German, he has a criminal background – he spent nine years in jail for robbery and fraud. And just as Dirlewanger was patronized by SS recruitment head Gottlob Berger, Prigozhin is close to Putin.

However, Prigozhin has no known military background – hence his early reliance upon Uktin and others like him.

The two units' combat trajectories are also similar. Originally, Dirlewanger's specialists were used in counter-guerilla missions. But expansion, deployment to more intense operations and the need to replace casualties, necessitated recruitment from wider criminal classes.

Likewise, proto-Wagner is believed to have recruited from among ex-Russian commandos for shadowy missions in Africa, Syria and Latin America. When the Ukraine war exploded in February, its troops fought effectively during the capture of the Donetsk town of Popasna.

But since then, Wagner – also known as“The Orchestra” – has been bogged down in months-long combat for the city of Bakhmut. The fighting is World War I-style; footage from some sectors recalls the devastated landscapes of the apocalyptic 2016 battle of Verdun. In this battlespace, skilled commandos are a waste of talent – hence the need for criminals to conduct infantry assaults, inching Russia's grinding offensive onward.

Still, the Dirlewanger Brigade is not the only historical precedent for recruiting criminals.

“Both the Wehrmacht and Red Army, due to manpower constraints, did follow such practices,” said Nash, listing a range of probationary and penal units. But he doubts if criminals will prove to be the battle winners Prigozhin hopes for.

“In a conventional fight, such men, having had little training or incentives, have very little value,” Nash said.

The resurrection of prison recruitment by Wagner is highly unusual.“I have not heard of such units being raised since World War II,” Nash said.

One conflict that did see criminals enter battle followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. In Croatia and Bosnia, the“Tiger” war band led by Serbian mobster“Arkan” (Zeljko Raznatovic) included criminals and hooligans. Western Europeans were shocked by the cruelties of that conflict – as they are by the horrors emerging from Ukraine.

A wide range of alleged war crimes – rape, torture, murder – committed by Russian troops is now under investigation by Kiev courts. And Wagner does not hide its brutality.

In what may be a fear tactic aimed to obviate desertions among criminal recruits, one ex-murderer fighting for Wagner was infamously executed with a sledgehammer blow to the skull, on camera. prigozhin himself commented on the video , posted on a Telegram channel linked to Wagner, calling it“a dog's death for a dog.”

“The Wagner Group, perhaps influenced by their service in Syria where they battled ISIS – no stranger to extreme brutality and cruelty – may have decided to copy similar methods to keep its men in line,” Nash opined.

Western media were understandably horrified. But while they focus their cameras almost exclusively on Russian brutality, it is not only Moscow's men who are conducting atrocities.

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin rolls out his Wagner recruiting pitch to convicted criminals. Image: screengrab/YouTube Brutalities of war

Ukraine lies in an unfortunate geopolitical space – a battleground between the Orthodox traditions of the East and the Catholic traditions of the West. Its dark soil, rich agriculture and large populace make it a key prize. And its vast open spaces, ideal for maneuvering, have long been fought over.

It is no stranger to horror. Before World War II was unleashed on the country, Russian leader Joseph Stalin conducted genocide via“Terror Famine” – the Holodomar – that killed between 3.5 million and 5 million Ukrainians in 1932-33.

When Hitler's armies invaded in 1941, they were welcomed by many Ukrainians, who saw them as freeing them from the communist yoke. The savagery of the Nazi regime soon turned much of the populace against the invaders and Ukrainians, after Russians, made up the second-largest ethnic group in the Red Army that crushed Hitler's Wehrmacht in 1945.

Even so, plentiful Ukrainians sided with the Germans, including a full – and over-subscribed – division of Waffen SS troops. Moreover, Ukrainian turncoats were employed by the SS to oversee the liquidation camps at Sobibor, Chelmno, Majdankek and Treblinka.

In recent years, as Kiev squared off against Moscow and nationalism hit new fever pitch, troubling trends have bubbled to the fore in Ukraine. A cult has arisen around the late Ukrainian wartime nationalist, anti-semite and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. And some paramilitary and military units have adopted far-right ideologies and SS and other Nazi insignia.

“Nowadays in Ukraine, the veterans of [the Ukrainian SS division] are viewed as patriots,” said Nash. Displays of insignia are“a sign of respect for these Ukrainian 'patriots' as it might be for the Waffen-SS in general, which still has the reputation of being one of the most effective military forces in history.”

However, some Ukrainian troops are paying homage to the very worst SS unit. That, reckons Park, suggests poor leadership.

“I have noticed Dirlewanger patches on some Ukrainians soldiers in Twitter posts,” said Park – suggesting that this relates to poor leadership. That, in turn, explains,“why there are regular killings of prisoners and civilian 'collaborators' by the Ukrainian forces,” Park said.

Asia Times has viewed atrocity videos shot by Ukrainian soldiers. While the veracity of these clips cannot be confirmed, they have circulated among the retired military community online, where they are taken at face value.

One captures Ukrainian soldiers shooting bound Russian soldiers through the legs, a torture tactic known as kneecapping. Another shows Russian bodies twitching on a road with their throats cut, apparently after surrendering. Yet another shows the bodies of Russian POWs being rolled down a hillside into a pit.

One reason for these atrocities may be the intra-Slavic nature of the conflict. Civil wars are often especially brutal and many Russians view Ukrainians as junior members of Russia's former empires.

That is reflected in front-line language. Russians call Ukrainians“kholkols” (an ethnic slur); Ukrainians dub Russians“orcs” (after the goblin-like marauders of JRR Tolkien's fantasies).

“Dehumanizing your opponent makes it easier to kill them, it's a technique as old as time,” said Nash.“Strong conditioning has to be inculcated in order for human beings to overcome their moral revulsion and resistance against taking the life of another human being.” 

Though Nazi Germany – due to its genocidal conduct – remains the black standard for warfighting, one expert suggests that basic Russian practices of war, too, may be more brutal than those adopted by Western armies.

“I always thought it very difficult (and questionable) to measure the level of atrocities committed by men and women fighting through the ages and the horizons,” said Gastone Breccia, an Italian military historian who teaches at the University of Pavia.“War crimes have been and still are committed by every army everywhere.”

But he continued,“Maybe the 'Russian way of war' is particularly harsh due to a series of factors, chiefly related with the environment – extreme climate, not only during the coldest months; vastness of the battlefield; hardships related to long-distance delivery of supplies.”

A Ukrainian serviceman walks as seeds burn in grain silos after being shelled repeatedly in Donetsk region, May 31, 2022. Image: Twitter / Inquirer / Agencies

Moreover, customary operational doctrine dictates the meatgrinder tactics Wagner is deploying.

Russian officers display“a willingness to use manpower disregarding the level of losses, especially in the initial stages of attack,” Breccia said.“And to use firepower with no second thoughts about any kind of collateral damage – saturation fire instead of precision fire.”

But even if Wagner's methods are representative of old-school Soviet-Russian warfare, Nash expresses disgust at convict troops' presence on a battlefield.

“I, and most of my peers, would have viewed their presence as an affront and an insult to professional soldiers,” he said, noting that regular German officers treated Dirlewanger's unit with contempt.

“There has always been a code of honor amongst military professionals, and it is clear to see that the Wagner Group's military arm is neither honorable nor professional.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul


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