The horrifying atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine come as no surprise to military historians. The Russian army and its Soviet predecessor have a long and ugly history of systematic brutality in warfare. Given that Russian army has never acknowledged their criminal behaviour, whether in the Civil War, World War II, or their more recent actions in countries like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, it is not surprising to see it failing to face up to their actions yet again in Ukraine.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the army of the newly created Russian Federation followed in the footsteps of its predecessor. Russia fought two wars against the breakaway republic of Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009). The second war, overseen by the new president Vladimir Putin, was particularly brutal. In addition to indiscriminate shelling of civilians, Russian forces engaged in summary executions, rape and looting. Atrocities were not spontaneous actions of rogue soldiers, but deliberate policy. “Without bespredel [no limits warfare], we’ll get nowhere in Chechnya,” one solider said, “We have to be cruel to them. Otherwise, we’ll achieve nothing.” Approximately 250,000 civilians died in the Chechen wars.
Russian forces supporting Bashir al-Assad used the same heavy-handed tactics in Syria. A United Nations Commission found that Russia committed war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians. In one incident wherein Russian warplanes bombed a marketplace, they waited for aid workers to arrive and then unleashed a second assault. In another incident, they targeted a compound for displaced civilians, killing 20 people, including eight women and six children. The worst atrocity, however, was the 2016 bombing of Aleppo, which destroyed hospitals and schools, cut off supplies, and killed hundreds of civilians in what many experts consider part of a deliberate strategy.
This sordid history reveals that atrocities in Ukraine are not an exception but a key element of the Russian way of war, employed for over a century. Neither Putin nor his generals anticipated the type of conflict they now face. Surrounding Ukraine with a massive concentration of troops on three sides would, they hoped, intimidate the Ukrainians into giving up without a fight or with minimal resistance. The Russians expected to be in the capital Kyiv in days, and expected President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee or be captured.
As we know, the Ukrainians did not roll over. Their military has put up a fierce fight backed by a unified population determined to defend their country at all costs. Unprepared for a protracted conflict, the Russian advance stalled. A forty-mile-long convoy advancing on Kyiv from Belarus ran out of fuel and provided target practice for nimble Ukrainian units armed with Javelin antitank missiles. The Russians have captured only one major city, Kherson in the south, where it faces protests from citizens demonstrating how hard it will be to occupy the country.
Frustrated by resistance and embarrassed by the poor performance of their armed forces, the Russians have resorted to the strategy they employed in Afghanistan, Syria and Chechnya. They lay siege to cities, bombarding them relentlessly from the ground and air. While commentators have described these attacks as “indiscriminate,” considerable evidence suggests deliberate targeting of civilians. Russian planes bombed a maternity hospital and theater with the word “children” written on the roof. On April 8, a Russian missile struck a train station jammed with women and children trying to flee the carnage.
“More than 917 children were injured in Ukraine as a result of full-scale armed aggression by the Russian Federation. As of the morning of June 23, 2022, the official number of child victims over the past day has not changed – 324. The number of those injured has increased to 597,” the report of The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office . These figures are not final, as they are being investigated within the areas of hostilities, temporarily occupied and liberated areas. Currently, most casualties were recorded in Donetsk Region (308), Kharkiv Region (175), Kyiv Region (116), Chernihiv Region (68), Luhansk Region (54), Kherson Region (52), Mykolaiv Region (48), Zaporizhzhia Region (31), and Sumy Region (17).
The invaders have murdered, raped and looted in the areas they occupied. When Ukrainian troops returned to Bucha, they found the streets littered with bodies. Many of the dead had their hands tied behind their back.
- The Human Rights Watch report documents allegations of 22 summary executions, nine other unlawful killings, six possible enforced disappearances and seven cases of alleged torture
- Now the International Criminal Court is sending a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support personnel to Ukraine
- US launches new program to capture and analyse evidence of war crimes and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine
Russian soldiers operate within an institutional culture that tacitly allows and actively encourages barbaric behavior. Radio intercepts reveal them discussing the killing of civilians as a deliberate tactic. Putin’s propaganda machine has dehumanized the Ukrainians, making it much easier for his troops to brutalize them.