A term rarely heard in the West, if at all, is “Zinky Boys.” It originated in the former Soviet Union during that country’s involvement in the Afghanistan fiasco (1979-1989) – a war that so drained Russia of what limited treasure it held and the blood of a generation transitioning between baby boomer and Generation X, it would contribute to the USSR’s collapse.
Early in the Afghan conflict, Soviets shipped their dead soldiers back in sealed zinc coffins, giving rise to the term Zinky Boys – doing so while claiming there was no ongoing conflict. While battlefield warriors hope to be buried on home soil, not all were. The Soviet leadership determined it was less likely to stir up war animosity at home if their dead were either left behind or shipped off to Warsaw Pact countries for disposal – as was done with their wounded.
Telling about the brutality of Soviet rule was the revelation that some of its wounded, who had gone missing on the battlefield, years later were discovered living among the Afghan population, choosing never to return home. This was understandable in light of leaders who felt no sense of obligation to dead warriors and their families. Thus, many fallen never qualified as Zinky Boys.
Due to its iron-fisted rule, the Soviet Union never experienced antiwar protests that plagued the U.S. during the Vietnam War. While the former bred a submissive population and military, it would undergo a change giving the Zinky Boys a voice in the Ukraine war.
In the late 1980s, under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union implemented two policy changes easing its 1990s transition from the USSR to Russia. The policies were “glasnost,” meaning openness, and “perestroika,” meaning a shift away from a centralized economy and more toward one enhancing automation and labor efficiency.
Although Russian society today remains more open than it ever was under Soviet control, the glasnost of President Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, reigned in the glasnost Gorbachev implemented. Both Gorbachev and Putin, based on their powers of office, essentially were/are dictators, but while Gorbachev served benevolently to improve life for his people, Putin couldn’t care less.
Under Gorbachev, glasnost, like the coronavirus, spread throughout the land, enticing the Soviet population of old out of its submissive shell. Having tasted the nectar of freedom under a collapsing Soviet system, it is unwilling to go back to those days. And, nowhere is this free spirit rearing a more defiant head toward Russian leaders than among those placed in harm’s way – the military – senselessly sent in to initiate an unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine. This was done with little attention focused on effective training, any sense of mission purpose or troop welfare. Accordingly, we are witnessing incidents occurring today by the Russian military unheard of among the Soviet military of old.
The Soviet army took an obedient attitude toward its military leadership, understanding what it had on the battlefield was the best it would get. Complaining was fruitless and untolerated. However, today’s Russian army is not the submissive army of its fathers. Intercepted communications among Russian units reveal a lot of complaining as soldiers recognize they lack the best training and equipment needed.
The Ukraine war has been a wake-up call for commanders who are finding their equipment in dire shape. One tank regimental commander – so distraught upon learning only 10% were operational due to theft of parts – committed suicide.
Communication has been a serious problem – not only from the standpoint of secure communications but from that of effectively executing command and control. This has forced senior commanders to go to the front lines – a measure thta has resulted in their being specifically targeted in many cases. So far, at least seven Russian generals have been killed by snipers or other means. This is already two more flag officers than the Soviets lost in the entire Afghanistan war.
The frustration on the part of Russian troops is clearly revealed by radio intercepts made during an attack on the small Ukrainian city of Makariv. Despite the presence of civilians, the Russian commander ordered hits against the entire town. When the Ukrainians fought back fiercely, the commander then pleaded for more support, reporting his men were “suffering” badly and demanding to know where the “f__k” his promised air support was. This was followed by him yelling, “You f___ing forgot” about it! In any event, air support has not been precise as Russian troops have been bombed on several occasions by their own air force.
Another intercept, obviously involving a veteran of an earlier conflict, had him screaming, “Even in Chechnya, there was nothing like this. This is a madhouse!” While a toxic environment exists between Russian troops and their officers, one incident tells us just how severe that environment has become.
As Russian casualties continue increasing, with one report claiming 17,000, more than were lost in the entire Afghan war, so too does the frustration. Nowhere is this devastating impact upon the Russians more apparent than casualties taken by Russia’s 37th Motor Rifle Brigade. The brigade of 1,500 soldiers, under the command of Gen. Yuri Medvedev, lost almost half its number. Perceiving their expendability by Medvedev, his own men drove over him in a tank as a battle with Ukrainians was raging, severely injuring him. While Medvedev was loaded onto a medevac vehicle, there are mixed reports as to whether or not he survived the attack.
Similar to its approach during the Afghan war, the Russian leadership is shipping its dead and wounded to its ally Belarus rather than back home for fear of triggering a Russian citizenry no longer willing to roll over and accept their government’s denial that the war is not going well. A French news video by TV5 Monde showed Russia’s dead arriving in train cars in Belarus. Apparently having misjudged their supply of body bags, the Russians transported the fallen wrapped in clear plastic sheets tied at both ends. Belarus morgues and hospitals are reportedly packed.
At some point, Putin will learn an invaluable lesson. Despite his desire to restore Russia to the days of the former Soviet Union, his own people are unsupportive as they hear the cries of the Zinky Boys echoing from his war in Ukraine.
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