What do toilets and war have in common? For Vladimir Putin, the trivialities of life in the frontlines reveal a more tragic conclusion for his looting troops: things are not well in Russia.
Lavatory habits can be regarded as a window into a society. Matters of design, matters of execution, and matters of attitude delight anthropologists and behavioural theorists. When it came to the looting of toilets by Russian soldiers in the raging Ukraine conflict, speculation as to why this was even necessary was piqued. It even prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to remark that the biggest Russian dream before dying had changed: instead of seeing Paris, it was now stealing a toilet.
In the bigger scheme of things, the Russian-Ukraine War has seen looting and theft on some scale. The failure of Russian forces to capture Kyiv and its outlying suburbs in the opening days of the conflict led to reports of low morale, purposelessness, and desperation. In April, a Belarusian Telegram channel ran video footage purportedly showing soldiers sending parcels back to Russia.
By May this year, a report by the Russian independent media outlet Mediazona put a figure on the amount of looted goods at 58 metric tons. The investigation involved analysing 46 branches of the delivery firm SDEK located near the borders of Ukraine and Belarus. Perusal of video footage taken from an SDEK checkpoint at the Russian border town of Valuyki found the rich array of items being sent home by soldiers: sneakers, canned food, car tyres, television sets, and tents.
The destinations of the looted items could also be discerned. The Siberian town of Urga received tonnage in the order of 5.8 tons, largely explained by the presence of the 74th Motorised Rifle Brigade, which has its base in the region of Kemerovo. That same brigade found deployment in the Ukrainian towns of Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin.
Small goods and items are hardly the only samples to make their way back across the border. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes in Ukrainian grain has also been taken from areas falling under Russian control and duly sold. But the picture of how the process is being executed is a complex one.
In September, Ukrainian diplomats urged the impounding of the Syrian-owned Laodicea, a bulk cargo ship allegedly containing 10,000 tons of barley and wheat flour from Ukrainian sources. This was all part of what an Associated Press and FRONTLINE report described as “part of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation that has used false manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million – cash that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin’s war machine.”
State-directed theft of Ukrainian steel has also taken place. Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, put it starkly: “Following the theft of Ukrainian grain, the occupiers resorted to exporting metal products from Mariupol.”
With a growing number of Russian setbacks in the field of battle, the story is repeating itself in other areas. Kherson, which lies in the west bank of the Dnieper River, has been the scene of what Ukrainian authorities describe as looting and forced deportation.
History shows that the looting and destruction of items in conflicts is rarely devoid of purpose and a rationale. To itemise such stolen items in the pedestrian manner of a civilian stock-take – bed linen, clothes, shoes, and white goods – is to miss the broader goals and incentives pursued by states and interested parties in war.
In Syria, the destruction and looting of precious archaeological sites looked, on the surface, as vicious acts of atavism, driven by sectarian animus. But as political scientist Jason Lyall explained in 2016, referring to the Syrian conflict, “This is not irrational. It’s not driven by hatred. It’s actually calculated. It’s political. It’s rational.” Islamic State forces, for instance, specialised in the quarrying and looting of antiquities as a source of revenue, a fact helped by the thriving nature of that market and growth of loot-to-order requests.
The literature on the subject has suggested a taxonomy of sorts, with strategic looting being the most common. It has been argued that Russia’s approach to Ukraine suggests a new economic policy at play, one that employs famine (the blocking or restriction of Ukrainian grain and destruction of granaries); state-directed theft (the capture and forced nationalisation of productive agricultural land and equipment); and conventional looting practices.
The struggle on the part of Russia’s military to find enough recruits for prosecuting the conflict has also encouraged incentives harking back to wars of old. Such a school of thinking might loosely be described as follows: Join the army, see the world, and loot it. Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation of American policy remarks that “looting has been permitted as an informal economic strategy to harm Ukrainians and incentivize Russians to serve in the military.”
Such strategies can bring certain harsh dividends to its users – if only in the short term. Looting and theft draws attention to the inability on the part of owners to preserve and protect their property. It contains, in no small part, an objective of terror, while also augmenting the means to continue warring operations, as the focus on grain resources by Russian forces has shown. But the conduct of Russian forces in Ukraine, be it in terms of pinching toilets or otherwise, also suggests that things are not going well.
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