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Cannon fodder: the tremendous loss of lives in Russia-Ukraine war

Chair à canon. Cannon fodder.

The expression “cannon fodder” was first used by the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand in his pamphlet De Bonaparte et des Bourbons, published in 1814. De Chateaubriand criticized the recruitment of the French Reign of Recruits as “raw materials”, expendable to accomplish war goals of Napoleon Bonaparte.


However, it was during World War I that the combatants were extensively used as metaphorical food for enemy cannons.


More than a century later, a report by the New York Times has condemned the same practice by the Russian army and the mercenaries of the so-called Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s paramilitary militia which is playing a key role in the conflict. In Bakhmut, the Ukrainian city in the Donbas region which has been the main front line in the last few months, the Wagner Group is widely using its conscripts as cannon fodder, with the aim to advance as much as possible on the battlefield. Those advances are generally not more than a dozen meters, but they can cost several lives.


Ukraine map


The conscripts are recruited mainly from the Russian prisons. They are drug dealers, murderers, and thieves. Rapists and drug addicts are not allowed, due to the Wagner Group’s code of honor. They are recruited with the promise of a pardon. In most cases, the choice is almost inevitable.


«We are prisoners, even if former prisoners. We are nobody and have no rights,» said Sergei, a Russian private interviewed by the New York Times. Sergei was recruited by the Wagner Group in a Russian jail and then dispatched to Bakhmut. There, he survived an order by his superiors: to advance as far as possible on the battlefield towards the enemy’s fire. He was shot and captured by the Ukrainian army. Now he is kept as a POW (a Prisoner of War) in a Ukrainian facility in Lviv, a city in the Western part of the country around seventy kilometers from the Polish border.


Sergei was a marijuana and meth dealer and received a ten years sentence in 2020. He had to choose between the prospect of spending many years in prison and the horrifying Ukrainian conflict, which could mean loss of life for him. Sergei chose the second option, just like many other Russian prisoners. Many of them were not as fortunate as him.

According to British intelligence, over the past two weeks, the Russian army has likely suffered the highest rate of casualties since the beginning of the war. 824 Russian conscripts are being killed every day, four times more than the rate reported by the British intelligence during the period between June and July from last year. 824 lives were lost every day in a war that only one man wanted to fight: Vladimir V. Putin.

In the meantime, the Russian strategy seems to be paying off. The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has almost been conquered by the enemy army, and the novel Russian offensive may start from there. According to the Institute for the Study of War, a policy research organization based in the United States, the second chapter of the conflict may have already begun. Until now, the price of the few Russian successes has been mainly paid by its conscripts: Russian cannon fodder.

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