Inside Russia’s Storm-Z Units, Where Soldiers Are Treated as ‘Meat’ on the Frontlines

On April 11, 2022, Russian troops conducted a street patrol in Volnovakha, located in the Donetsk region. This photograph was captured as part of an excursion arranged by the Russian military. (Photograph by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)
On April 11, 2022, Russian troops conducted a street patrol in Volnovakha, located in the Donetsk region. This photograph was captured as part of an excursion arranged by the Russian military. (Photograph by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)

Moscow, Russia – November 2, 2023: In an astonishing revelation earlier this year, Frontelligence Insight, the open-source intelligence website, brought to light a substantial report on the Russian Defense Ministry’s “On Z Assault Companies.” This report, whose contents are now being scrutinized by security analysts and experts, bears an uncanny resemblance to the regulations issued by the Soviet Army in 1942 for their penal units. These leaked documents have since become the foundation for the analysis and insights presented in an April 6 bulletin by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in the United States and the UK Ministry of Defence’s October 24 intelligence update.

The contemporary “Storm-Z” regulations have raised eyebrows among security experts, as they reveal an alarming approach to military organization and deployment. While they define the formation of specialized and highly trained assault groups, their operational realities present a stark contrast to the ambitious objectives laid out on paper.

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The first “Storm-Z” units emerged in October of the previous year, marking a significant transition in the recruitment process. The Russian Ministry of Defense took over recruitment from the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), which had previously been authorized to enlist convicts with promises of pardons for their crimes. This transition laid the groundwork for the formation and deployment of these specialized assault groups.

The Russian doctrine outlines a “Storm-Z” Company as “a temporarily created independent, combined-arms unit outside the regular army structure for immediate operational tasking to carry out particularly complex combat missions.” These units are designed to adapt flexibly to their allocated combat missions, which can encompass a wide range of activities, including reconnaissance, capture, fire support, combat engineering, medevac, and UAV control teams.

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Storm-Z Regulations in the 21st Century

The Storm-Z regulations, as laid out in the leaked documents, present a series of contentious policies and practices:

1. Contract Duration: Storm-Z members initially sign a six-month contract. Upon successful completion, they may be pardoned, offered new contracts, or allowed to return to Russia at their discretion. However, disturbing reports circulating on social media suggest that many prisoners are not released upon contract completion and are coerced into staying on the front lines under new agreements.

2. Segregation: The regulations stipulate that Storm-Z recruits from different prisons are not allowed to serve together or with other contracted military personnel, raising concerns about potential factionalism within these units.

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3. Combat Tasks: Storm-Z units are tasked with leading assaults in urban settings or challenging terrains to secure key objectives, conduct sabotage operations, counter enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups, and coordinate artillery fire and air support. These tasks place immense pressure on the members, considering the hazardous nature of such missions.

4. Training: The training period allocated to Storm-Z personnel lasts between 10 to 15 days, depending on their prior military experience. It is supposedly organized into three phases, covering individual military skills, unit operational and tactical training, and operational coordination with other formations. This short training window seems inadequate for the complexity of the missions they are expected to undertake.

5. Medical Care: The regulations state that primary medical care will be limited “to the extent of self-administered and mutual aid.” A Storm-Z medical department consists of a driver, one medical orderly, and a commander. This approach raises serious concerns about the well-being of the troops in the field.

6. Handling Deceased: Shockingly, the regulations dictate that the bodies of dead prisoners are to be stored separately from those of regular Russian army servicemen, emphasizing the division between these units and the mainstream military.

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7. Discipline and Control: Commanders of formations to which Storm-Z units are assigned may use military police convoys to escort convicts “from the moment of transfer of personnel by representatives of the Federal Penitentiary Service to representatives of the [receiving] unit,” ensuring the “observance of military discipline.” Commanders are even authorized to use lethal force to restore discipline and order in case of open disobedience, a measure that raises ethical and human rights concerns.

Reality vs. Regulations

An October 3 Reuters report shed light on the wide gap between the regulations and the ground realities faced by Storm-Z soldiers. It confirmed the poor training and equipment of these units, highlighting how they operate in stark contrast to the organization and roles detailed in the regulations. These Storm-Z units, typically comprising about 100 to 150 personnel, are embedded within regular army units but are often deployed to the most exposed areas of the front lines, where they sustain heavy losses with little or no attempt to evacuate casualties.

One harrowing account from a Storm-Z soldier mentioned that only 15 of his original 120-man unit remained after a fierce battle near Bakhmut in June. This suggests a severe discrepancy between the expectations set by the regulations and the actual conditions experienced by the troops. Additionally, it was claimed that not all serving in these units were convicts; anyone with even a hint of alcohol on their breath could be immediately dispatched to a Storm-Z squad.

One regular Russian soldier who had fought alongside Storm-Z units described them as “just meat,” highlighting the grim and perilous situation within these specialized assault groups.

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The revelation of the “Storm-Z” regulations and the discrepancy between the idealistic regulations and the practical implementation of these units calls for a closer examination of the human rights and operational aspects of Russia’s military operations. As these documents continue to be analyzed, they raise significant questions about the treatment and utilization of military personnel in contemporary warfare, emphasizing the importance of transparency and accountability in military practices.

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