• Reports suggest Russia’s defense ministry is trying to enforce rules on facial hair and  smartphones.
  • The head of the Wagner mercenary group, among others, is pushing back.
  • The spat is a telling clue about the dysfunction in Russian ranks as a new general tries to regain the momentum.

Signs that Russia’s defense ministry may be getting serious about cracking down on its troops’ cell phones and facial hair triggered public criticism by a close Putin ally, who slammed the effort as outdated and pointless. 

The spat is a telling clue pointing to dysfunction in the Russian ranks as a new general tries to stanch his sides’ losses at a critical moment and highlights some of the larger command, order, and discipline problems the Russian side has with its hodgepodge of uniformed troops, mercenaries, convicts, and other fighters.

There are indications that Russian military leaders are re-emphasizing rules against beards and the use of personal electronic devices — like smartphones and tablets — at the front lines, according to an analysis from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

ISW said that such an order would be a “way for higher echelons of the Russian command to test the ability of lower-level commanders to execute a relatively straightforward order on the individual soldier level.”

In other words, though it may seem unimportant, getting a soldier to wear their uniform properly and to ensure they are clean-shaven when they have access to washing facilities is a time-tested way to ascertain whether they will follow orders that carry more risk.

Viktor Sobolev, a retired lieutenant general and current member of Russia’s parliament, defended this push as an “essential” aspect of military discipline in a recent interview, only to draw criticism from the leaders of two groups fighting for Russia in Ukraine — Chechen fighters and Wagner mercenaries.

When asked by a media outlet for comment on Sobolev’s remarks, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who founded the notorious Wagner Group paramilitary organization, said that shaving on the battlefield is often a luxury and that the use of phones is actually helpful to the war efforts.

“A soldier must fight. A soldier sees civilians once a month, or even less often. 80% of the time at the front, soldiers wash with a bottle, and shaving is generally a great luxury,” Prigozhin said in a statement published to his Telegram earlier this week. “A considerable part of both Muslims and Orthodox, according to religious customs, wear a beard. The beard at the front is a symbol, it is a tradition.”  

“Tablets and smartphones are essential to modern warfare,” Prigozhin continued. “Accurate geodata is available, including heights and other terrain secrets. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, junior commanders and fighters of certain specialties (and they constitute 30 to 50% of all military men) know the general situation and can transmit the data necessary in battle.”

He noted that it’s important to use communication methods that can’t be detected by Ukraine, an issue that has come into focus in recent weeks after a deadly Ukrainian strike killed scores of Russian troops and Moscow blamed the carnage on cellphone usage by its own forces. It’s unclear if that played a role, but Ukraine has geolocated the cellphones of Russian troops and used that information in attacks.

Prigozhin said that Sobolev lacks modern military knowledge and that his comments are outdated.

Instead of “trying to bend everyone under your ridiculous rules, principles, and whims, you need to evolve along with the development of modern warfare, learn how to effectively kill the enemy and seize territories,” he said. “War is the time of the active and the courageous, and not of the clean-shaven who handed their phones over to the warehouse.”

These comments came in tandem with criticisms from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who said Sobolev must have lots of free time “since he has nothing to do but rereading the military code of conduct,” per Reuters. Chechen soldiers, who are predominantly Muslim, are frequently photographed with beards. 

The argument over facial hair is the latest incident pointing to a rift between Russia’s military and the external forces that are fighting on the Kremlin’s behalf — like Wagner, which has filled its ranks with prisoners. Prigozhin at times has promoted Wagner’s efforts against Ukraine while ripping into Moscow’s inability to secure any notable achievements.

It also exposes a consistent dysfunction and communication issue that has plagued Russia’s war efforts since launching the large-scale invasion nearly a year ago. 

Tension over the beard and electronics protocols comes as Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries face a brutal and intense fight around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has become a major battle between Kyiv and Moscow in recent weeks, and as both sides look to execute breakthrough offensives.

Translation services were provided by Oleksandr Vynogradov

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