Russian soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries are raping, torturing, and summarily executing civilians across Ukraine. This was the Russian way of war in Germany during 1945, and Russia has returned to this as its way of war in the 21st Century.
Russian violence against Ukrainian civilians is repugnant and unconscionable, but will quite possibly be strategically useful for achieving President Putin’s war aims.
Putin’s forces have failed to take Kyiv and destroy the Ukrainian government in a brief period of time, so now they will do what they do best: reduce city after city to rubble while terrorising the Ukrainian population into fleeing West. At a minimum, Putin wants Eastern Ukraine, as much of Ukraine’s coastline as possible, and all of its major ports. There is absolutely no reason to assume that, given enough time, Russian tactics of mass bombardment and terror won’t achieve Putin’s war aims.
Whether rape, torture, and summary execution are official tactics of Russian military and Wagner Group forces in Ukraine is an important legal question, but, in reality, they are being tolerated by Putin’s regime, and perpetrators will not be called to answer for their behaviour if/when they return home to Russia. Violence is an all too normal part of Russian life and has been institutionalised throughout the apparatus of the Russian state.
Putin wants Ukrainian territory, not the Ukrainian people, and terror will propel progressively more Ukrainian civilians toward NATO member borders. Ukrainian civilians cannot risk staying to suffer Russian atrocities, and as they leave Russian forces will have more freedom to blow everything and anything to bits, because there will be less potential civilian casualties left to attract global media attention. Every Ukrainian who crosses into the European Union will be safer, but their exit also makes it easier for Russian forces to justify turning Ukraine into a meat-grinder. Putin does not want Russian forces to continue to fight an up-close and personal war with Ukrainian forces, because they have already shown that they will lose at this type of warfare. Putin wants to destroy the Ukrainian military and own Ukrainian territory, and the most likely way he will achieve this is to call everything in front of Russian forces a legitimate target and allow mass destruction and mass terror.
Imagine it is a month from now and another three or four million Ukrainians have left their country. Russian forces will be able to illegitimately claim that everyone left is a combatant and settle in for the long-haul of mass bombardment and mass terror.
Imagine that you are a Ukrainian soldier going into battle for the third month in a row. If your family have already escaped the country, should you stay and fight, or follow them? If you don’t know where your family are and what has happened to them, should you stay and fight, or go and look for them? Putin is trying to destroy Ukrainian morale, and pushing the Ukrainian population out of their homes under the threat of terror might work, eventually. Historical poems and songs tell us that Humans fight for their country and the land beneath their feet, but memoires and reminiscences show us that individuals fight for the people they love. If the people you love have left the danger zone, or you don’t know where they are, what precisely are you fighting for?
In contrast, President Putin knows exactly what he values and wants. President Putin isn’t worried about Russia’s image on the world stage: he is concerned with whether Russia wins and whether Russia is feared. Fear is an important tool in an authoritarian dictator’s tool-kit, and, paradoxically, war crimes can sharpen fear as a tool for Putin.
Imagine what it is going to look like when the mass battles for control of Eastern and Southern Ukraine begin. Russian forces are most likely going to crush everything in front of them, something like a battle on the Eastern Front during the final year of World War II. Meanwhile the outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian defenders are going to blead out into the soil of their land. This imagery will be awful, and will reinforce the fact that Putin’s forces are relentless, immoral, and should be feared. In addition, if Putin’s forces continue to behave like war criminals, then the only place they will be safe is in Putin’s Russia, providing him with a complicit military and compliant population for years to come.
At present, the West is patting itself on the back for providing Ukraine with light and lethal weapons. These weapons have bought Ukraine time, as well as motivating the Russians to return to their preferred way of war.
If the West doesn’t immediately provide Ukraine with the heavy weapons necessary to successfully prosecute the battles ahead, then the West will be seen to be weak and uncaring for letting the armed forces of a democratic nation be crushed by frightening invaders on their own soil. More significantly, the West will look callous for letting Ukrainians be raped, tortured and killed when we could have done more to stop it from happening.
As stated above, Putin cares about winning and being feared,. He is the quintessential pragmatist and opportunist, and does not care whether the world thinks positively of him or Russia. Russian war crimes can provide President Putin with another opportunity to achieve his war aims, and the West needs to take immediate, decisive action as well as being outraged. Putin understands fear, so we need to make sure that Ukrainians can make him and Russian forces afraid in the months ahead.