Want to boast that you fought for the homeland, but without risking your life? Welcome to OBTF Cascade, the Russian military unit that allows career politicians and their military-aged sons to play war in Ukraine – at a safe and comfortable distance from the blood being spilled on the frontline.
“Fiery hearts. Nerves of steel.” Such are the characteristics of troops belonging to OBTF Cascade – at least according to the unit’s Telegram channel, which is filled with aerial videos of Russian drone bombings accompanied by heavy metal music and portrait pictures of its well-groomed and well-equipped “fighters”.
“When the Motherland called, the cadets took up arms without hesitation and stood up to defend their native land,” one of the photo captions reads, adding that the brave, young men in the pictures previously studied at Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and had promising futures as investigators.
But according to Jeff Hawn, a non-resident fellow at the Washington DC-based think-tank New Lines Institute and an expert on the Russian military, Cascade fighters might not be as daring and courageous as they make themselves out to be.
“The unit has never, as far as anyone can tell, been within 50 miles (80 kilometres) of combat,” he said.
Fulfilling their ‘patriotic duty’
Cascade is a secretive reconnaissance group that shares the same name as a Russian special forces unit – a deliberate move according to Hawn. It was reportedly founded in October last year by Dmitry Sablin, a member of Russia’s ruling United Russia party and a former MP in the State Duma.
Hawn said the unit was created in response to President Vladimir Putin’s decision to declare a “partial mobilisation”, in which 300,000 Russian reservists would be called up and sent to the war in Ukraine. By creating the elite Cascade unit, which is believed to consist of around a hundred members, the Kremlin could show that no one – not even the country’s politicians – were too important to be exempt from military duty.
“[Cascade] was part of a broader effort to show that members of parliament and their families are also actively fighting in the war, or doing their patriotic duty,” Hawn said, noting that several lawmakers and high-profile Russians, including Sablin’s own son, have so far served in the Cascade unit.
According to French newspaper Le Figaro, the group, which is based in the illegally annexed Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, is equipped and funded by the Russian defence ministry.
As much as the group tries to advertise itself as a real combat group, however, critics say it is everything but that.
“This is a ‘cronies detachment’ that includes deputies and their children who want to mark themselves as having been in the war but don’t feel like going to the front line,” the Daily Telegraph cited the influential Russian blog channel VKCh-OGPU as stating in a recent article on the group.
The newspaper pointed to photographs showing Cascade fighters preparing drones and “studying computer monitors from comfortable bunkers”.
The “dangers” Cascade members expose themselves to are virtually non-existent, Hawn added, noting that their contribution to the war effort amounts to little more than photo ops serving Kremlin propaganda purposes.
“They participate for less than a month, take photos, post them, then go home,” Hawn explained. “The MPs and their boys don’t actually do anything.”
Meanwhile, “Russian soldiers are dying in their hundreds in the mud of Bakhmut,” he said.
Join Cascade, up your election chances
In an opinion piece published by American think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev explained that the war in Ukraine and the title “veteran” has become a “career elevator” for Russian politicians.
“The most cunning careerists, therefore, will appropriate the label of ‘veteran’, earning it through visits to the front lasting only long enough for a photo op,” he wrote, noting that Russian regional elections are now only months away, and trips to Ukraine are therefore in full swing.
One of those who temporarily ditched his administrative duties to “fight” for his homeland by joining Cascade is State Duma member Oleg Golikov. According to Le Figaro, he recently served two three-month contracts with the unit, proudly declaring that: “I’m on the frontline to defend our homeland.”
Whether or not they have taken part in actual combat, politicians who enrolled “have fully embraced the label of combatant, a bet that appears to have paid off”, said Pertsev.
He added: “These days, Putin speaks constantly of the valour of those fighting the war.”
This story originally appeared on France24