When Mikhail Lyubimov returned to his mother’s Moscow flat last month, he was a very different young man from the one who’d gone to war in Ukraine.
In his three months on the frontline, the 25-year-old had witnessed scenes of scarcely believable horror. Stricken by panic attacks, he began drinking heavily.
But it was when he was ordered to return to his unit for a second tour of duty that he decided he could take no more.
The day before he was due to report back for another stint on the frontline, he threw himself out of a tenth-floor window — in full view of his mother — and fell to his death.
His tragic story offers a revealing insight into the state of Russia’s army.
Some 180,000 Russians have been killed or wounded during the war on Ukraine. Pictured: Newly-conscripted soldiers in Russia
25-year-old Mikhail Lyubimov (pictured) had witnessed scenes of scarcely believable horror. Stricken by panic attacks, he began drinking heavily and eventually threw himself out of a tenth-floor window
As it adopts a meat-grinder approach to warfare, with wave after wave of conscripts being driven into a hail of bullets, tank and artillery fire on battlefields all over eastern Ukraine, morale has never been lower.
Some 180,000 Russians have been killed or wounded, according to credible estimates from Norway’s army chief.
And after so many members of Russia’s standing army have been slaughtered, Vladimir Putin’s regime — like Stalin’s before him — is increasingly turning to its prison population to reinforce the frontline.
Many of the troops being used as cannon fodder are convicted murderers, rapists and thieves, all lured to the front by the promise of a pardon if they survive for six months.
Ukrainian soldiers who have been on the receiving end of Russian attacks are also convinced that enemy soldiers are fortified by drugs that enable them to keep fighting until they bleed out — ‘even when hit by machine guns’ — and which leave them so desensitised that they clamber over the corpses of their dead comrades as though they are nothing more than fallen tree trunks.
No wonder recruits such as the tragic Lyubimov prefer a quick end than a lingering death on the battlefield amid the carnage inflicted on them by the Western-armed Ukrainians.
As it adopts a meat-grinder approach to warfare, with wave after wave of conscripts being driven into a hail of bullets, tank and artillery fire, morale has never been lower. Pictured: Evgeny Prigozhin (left) assists Vladimir Putin during a dinner in 2011
One Russian draftee recently described how he had witnessed a desperate soldier take his own life after getting his first taste of the war.
‘He blew up a grenade in his hands,’ he said. ‘He was torn in half before my eyes.’
Others seek to avoid being sent to Ukraine by rendering themselves medically unfit. Gruesome videos have been posted online showing men getting friends to smash their arms or legs with sledgehammers. Internet searches for ‘how to break an arm’ or ‘how to break a leg at home’ have spiked in Russia since Putin’s notorious ‘partial mobilisation’ was announced five months ago.
While the draft officially ended at the end of October, when defence minister Sergei Shoigu insisted the Russian army had raised sufficient manpower, the fact is that men of fighting age are still being press-ganged into service on the quiet.
A year on from the invasion of eastern Ukraine, with the Russians losing men at a rate of an estimated 20,000 a month, Putin’s demand for more troops to hold the lines — let alone advance — remains insatiable.
One way of replacing the dead is to turn reservists and conscripts into regular soldiers, so the army can deploy them at will.
A report from Astra, an independent Russian news source, says some conscripts were taken to a forest a few days ago, cut off from outside contact and told to sign contracts as regular soldiers. There was ‘shooting at their feet’ to ensure they obeyed.
There has been little in the way of organised resistance to this sort of behaviour because, in the main, it is men from the poorest and most marginalised communities in Russia who have been targeted for the call-up.
Affluent families in Moscow and St Petersburg benefit from a policy not to recruit so intensively in places where the elite reside, and they can also draw on a wide variety of well-established techniques designed to help their sons dodge the draft.
These include keeping them in education, sending them abroad or soliciting treatment for non-existent problems with drugs or mental health. Then there’s that old favourite: calling on friends in high places.
Members of Russia’s ethnic-minority communities are not so lucky. They have been deliberately targeted by Putin, not only to swell the ranks but to diminish the likelihood of rebellion in remote regions. After all, many of the young men who oppose his rule will never return home.
One Russian draftee recently described how he had witnessed a desperate soldier take his own life after getting his first taste of the war. Pictured: Russian soldiers practice on a military training ground
Take the village of Gvasyuga in the Khabarovsk region, 5,250 miles east of Moscow. There, a staggering 30 per cent of the available men have been mobilised, according to a report this week by iStories, another independent Russian news source.
Meanwhile, the death toll in some ethnic Siberian communities is six times as high as the fatalities among the mainly Slavic soldiers drawn from Moscow and St Petersburg — cities where the wealthy are still partying as though there is no war.
The region sending most men to fight is Krasnoyarsk, also in faraway Siberia, which has provided a grossly disproportionate 28,000, or 5.5 per cent of Russia’s entire reserve.
Once drafted, it’s clear they enter a truly barbaric war. Late last year, the Ukrainian secret service intercepted a call between a Russian soldier and his family in which he admitted he and his comrades had eaten a dog.
Another told his mother he was in such despair he wanted to hang himself. The Russians were ‘shooting everyone, including civilians’, he said.
With their menfolk at the front, it has fallen to Russia’s wives and mothers to lobby the Kremlin. Relatives of soldiers from one region in Russia’s far east had the temerity to appeal to Putin directly after being stonewalled by their regional governor and the men’s commanders.
Their faces sick with worry, the women explained their husbands and sons — members of Regiments 143 and 394 — had been stationed on the frontline without proper weapons or equipment. Their uniforms were in tatters, they said, and they were riddled with fleas and scabies.
Putin ignored them.
Soldiers have warned of their uniforms in tatters and they were riddled with fleas and scabies. Putin (pictured) ignored them
A group of Chechen wives and mothers also begged that no more men be sent to the front. ‘We ask you to leave our men, our brothers, our children at home,’ they wrote to their regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s most fanatical warlords.
The response was brutal. Their husbands were told to ‘beat their wives’, who were now deemed to be ‘enemies of the people’.
Meanwhile, an understanding of the pointlessness of all this cruelty and sacrifice is setting in. Enraged at seeing Putin at a stage-managed gathering of supportive women, Olga Tsukanova, 46, head of the Russian Council Of Mothers And Wives — who has collected 700 complaints concerning soldiers — issued a brave and direct challenge to the president.
‘Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], are you a man or what?’ she demanded. ‘Do you have enough courage to look into our eyes — openly, in a meeting with women who weren’t hand-picked for you? Women who aren’t in your pocket, but real mothers?’
She now stands accused of ‘discrediting’ the army’s campaign in Ukraine, a ‘crime’ that can easily lead to jail.
But still they speak out. Katya, from Siberia, recently buried her only son, who was 27. She wept as she said: ‘My boy was killed in some Ukrainian field, and for what? Ukrainians are not our enemies. I am half-Ukrainian. Why has Putin set us against each other? I stood bereft at my son’s funeral as a military official told me he had died a hero serving the motherland. But how can we have heroes in a criminal war?’
Across Russia, as such funerals go on and on, people are beginning to speak more openly.
Soldiers from one Siberian region, forced to the frontline, begged their wives and sisters to protest on their behalf. ‘It is now -20c outdoors. We have to live here, in the ice,’ said one.
Pictured: Rescue teams work to find survivors in the rubble of the destroyed building
In such conditions ‘we won’t be able to fight . . . We refuse to go to the front and sit in the trenches and wait for mortars to arrive’.
Only the convicts have answered Putin’s call with gusto. Remarkably, one in four members of the Russian military is estimated to be a former criminal, with most serving with the Wagner Group, a private army set up by Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin.
But the use of convicts threatens to unleash mayhem. Some of these hardened criminals have already survived their six-month stint at the frontline and are being sent home as free men. Law-abiding Russians are terrified that they will kill and rape once more.
Some of them have even been recommended for medals and hailed as Russia’s new heroes. One such unlikely figure is Alexander Tyutin, 66, who was jailed in 2021 for organising the brutal 2005 contract killing of his business partner, the latter’s pregnant wife and their two children.
Tyutin reportedly urinated on their graves after the funeral. He was caught years later after being duped by an undercover cop posing as a hitman when he tried to commission a second contract killing, this time of his late wife’s niece who was disputing his right to her aunt’s £93,500 inheritance.
Pictured: Rescuers work at a site of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine February 2, 2023
This monster had served only 18 months of his 23-year sentence when he was sent to fight for Putin. His war service complete, Tyutin was freed last month and has been seen relaxing alongside Western tourists on holiday in Antalya, Turkey, with his glamorous new wife.
Of course, the Moscow elite are happy for convicts to be sent to the frontline. Many more middle-class Russians would be called up to fight if it wasn’t for the use of prisoners such as Tyutin.
Yet even with criminals to bolster its military ranks, all the signs are that Russia needs a larger supply of fighters than either the army or its jails can provide.
This is being achieved by a combination of carrot and stick.
Teenage conscripts — who are eligible for military training, but by law must not be sent to the front — are being quietly recruited on inflated salaries.
Meanwhile, new rules will prevent men of military age driving abroad (to countries such as Georgia and Kazakhstan) to avoid the draft. In future, drivers will have to book slots to leave Russia, making it easier for the authorities to halt them at the border.
How much longer can all this go on? We hear little of those who refuse the draft. But there is no doubt that mutiny is happening — and that Russia is hiding the true extent of it.
Deserters caught by the authorities in Russia are locked in hellhole makeshift jails, often cellars.
At the front, men labelled ‘traitors’ are being tortured and killed.
One deserter, Dmitry Perov, 31, was shot dead after he fled the war zone to see his wife. His body was left to rot in a snowy field as a message to others.
Historically, the Russian people have endured more torment than most, both at the hands of their own leaders and invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler.
But there has been no invasion of Russian territory and, as the death toll mounts and the futility and the human cost of this bloody war becomes more apparent, the internal opposition will only grow.