Its experience in a string of wars led to the conclusion that attacking civilian populations was not only acceptable but militarily sound.
By Max Fisher
Published March 18, 2022Updated March 22, 2022
As Russian artillery and rockets land on Ukrainian hospitals and apartment blocks, devastating residential districts with no military value, the world is watching with horror what is, for Russia, an increasingly standard practice.
Its forces conducted similar attacks in Syria, bombing hospitals and other civilian structures as part of Russia’s intervention to prop up that country’s government.
Moscow went even further in Chechnya, a border region that had sought independence in the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup. During two formative wars there, Russia’s artillery and air forces turned city blocks to rubble and its ground troops massacred civilians in what was widely seen as a deliberate campaign to terrorize the population into submission.
Now, Vladimir V. Putin, whose rise to Russia’s presidency paralleled and was in some ways cemented by the Chechen wars, appears to be deploying a similar playbook in Ukraine, albeit so far only by increments.
These tactics reflect something more specific than simple ruthlessness alone. They emerged from Russia’s experiences in a string of wars that led its leaders to conclude, for reasons both strategic and ideological, that bombarding whole populations was not only acceptable but militarily sound.
They also reflect the circumstances of an authoritarian state with few allies, enabling the Kremlin to ignore and even embrace revulsion at its military conduct — or so Russian leaders seem to believe.
“Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties,” Alexei Arbatov, a prominent Russian military strategist and at the time a federal legislator, wrote in a 2000 essay describing Moscow’s emerging doctrine during Russia’s second war in Chechnya.
“The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively,” Mr. Arbatov wrote of that doctrine, adding that, in the Russian leadership’s view, international horror at Russian actions should be “discounted.”
But the shocking human toll that champions of this approach dismiss as irrelevant may be part of why it has so far failed in Ukraine.
Global outrage did not turn back Russian advances in Chechnya or Syria. But it is now driving the sanctions and military support that are devastating Russia’s economy and miring its invasion in quagmire — underscoring that Moscow’s way of war may not be as ruthlessly pragmatic as it believes.
The United States, of course, also frequently kills civilians in war, in drone and other airstrikes whose toll the U.S. treats as a regrettable but acceptable cost. Though the intention behind this strategy differs from Russia’s, the distinction may be of little significance for the dead.
A Russian Way of War
The Soviet military emerged from World War II with a mission to never again allow a foreign invasion of the homeland, growing formidable enough to stand toe-to-toe with the combined forces of NATO.
But in 1979 it faced a threat for which it was poorly suited: an insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, where Soviet forces intervened that year.
The Soviets suffered heavy casualties at the Afghan rebels’ hands before limping home in humiliating defeat a decade later.
Over the war’s course, Soviet officers came to favor air power, as well as large-scale shows of violence.
“In the valleys around Kabul, the Russians undertook a series of large operations engaging hundreds of tanks, mobilizing significant means, using bombs, rockets, napalm, and even, once gas, destroying all in their path,” a 1984 chronicle of the war recounted.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it much of what had been the Soviet military. That year, leaders in Chechnya began asserting the region’s independence. In 1994, Moscow ordered a major assault to retake control.
Russian troops again faced heavy losses against insurgents. A monthslong siege of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, obliterated much of the city and killed thousands of civilians. Still, Russian troops withdrew in a 1996 defeat that further loosened the Kremlin’s weakening hold on power.
These costly defeats instilled a reluctance to expose ground troops to direct combat, whose numbers had also shrunk with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Moscow compensated by using its predominant tools of war — the tanks and artillery it had amassed to match NATO — against the civilian populations it now saw, in counterinsurgency campaigns, as the enemy.
So when Moscow launched a second invasion of Chechnya, in 1999, its top general said that, if Russia had erred, it was in having “sinned by being too kindhearted,” pledging even greater violence.
Human rights groups chronicled spates of massacres throughout the war. In some cases, Russian officers declared certain villages to be “safe zones,” then blanketed them in so-called fuel-air bombs banned under the Geneva Conventions, killing scores at a time.
“All those remaining in Grozny will be considered terrorists and will be wiped out by artillery and aviation,” an official military edict warned. Though the statement was rescinded, Russian forces shelled the city indiscriminately, blockading its exits to prevent residents from fleeing.
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Mr. Putin, whom President Boris Yeltsin promoted from virtual anonymity to prime minister around the war’s outset, asserted himself as the face of the conflict, visiting front lines and pushing for escalation.
When Mr. Yeltsin resigned, Mr. Putin became acting president, a position he formally won in an election dominated by the war. He built his presidency around the conflict, asserting presidential powers and curbing political rights as wartime necessities, championing it ever since as a great triumph.
That conflict, along with the Russian military’s adaptations for a new Europe in which NATO forces now vastly outmatched their own, led to a new sort of doctrine.
“Assault by troops, which previously predetermined the outcome of the battles, will be used today, and even more so in the future, only to complete the defeat of the enemy,” A.A. Korabelnikov, a Russian officer, wrote in a 2019 white paper.
Instead, artillery and air power would do much of the work, inflicting devastating damage from afar. But because much of this technology remained Soviet-era, strikes were often indiscriminate — which Moscow had anyway embraced in Chechnya.
When Russian forces entered the Syrian war in 2015, that country’s Moscow-allied military was already massacring civilians at scale. Seeking to avoid an Afghanistan-style quagmire, Russian air power pulverized Syrian cities from above, cementing the Chechnya model.
Valery Gerasimov, now Russia’s top general, wrote in 2016 that the country’s forces were “acquiring priceless combat experience in Syria,” drawing lessons that Moscow extrapolated into formal policies the next year.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
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New efforts to isolate Russia. NATO foreign ministers are discussing an expansion of military aid to Ukraine, and the European Union is weighing a ban on Russian coal. The United Nations voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, while the U.S. Senate agreed to strip the country of its preferential trade status with the United States.
Peace talks. Hope for progress dimmed after Russia’s foreign minister said the Ukrainian side had proposed a new draft deal that deviated from previous versions. Belarus further complicated the situation by demanding to be included in the negotiations.
On the ground. Spurred by reports of Russian atrocities outside Kyiv and alarmed at signs that Russia’s military is about to escalate assaults in eastern Ukraine, many civilians appeared to be fleeing the region.
In the city of Mariupol. More than 5,000 people have died in the southeastern city since the start of Russia’s invasion, according to the city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, who said Moscow’s forces have destroyed almost all the city’s infrastructure.
Russian forces did not immediately repeat this approach in Ukraine. But, as the invasion has ground down, they have increasingly targeted civilian areas, especially in cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv that they have struggled to capture.
Strongman leaders like Mr. Putin, because they face less accountability from citizens and fewer checks on their power than even other kinds of dictators, tend to be more aggressive and take more risks in war, research has found.
This also makes them more able to shrug off public disgust over civilian casualties, which surveys have found can lead citizens in democracies to revoke support for foreign wars.
Russia also has few real allies, normally a restraint on military conduct toward foreign civilians. Mr. Putin has even repeated a famous saying by Alexander III, a 19th-century Russian emperor, that Russia’s only true allies were its army and its navy.
This does not mean that widely allied democracies like the United States necessarily kill fewer civilians in war.
American air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed large numbers of civilians. Under an Obama administration policy, the U.S. launched drone strikes on groups of people merely because they fit certain profiles, sometimes mistakenly striking weddings or funerals.
The U.S. has sometimes used indiscriminate tools of war, for example dropping 1,200 cluster bombs, which much of the world has banned for their danger to civilians, in its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
U.S. strikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, then held by the Islamic State, killed scores, with a single errant bomb claiming 70 civilians.
American officials stress that they strain to avoid civilian casualties, which they know anger local populations they hope to win over. Still, the U.S. has long maintained a strategy, centering on air power and drone strikes, that it knows brings a significant likelihood of killing civilians, even covering up embarrassing incidents.
Questions of how to parse the relative morality of these two approaches — deliberately killing civilians versus choosing a strategy that is known to bring it about — may ultimately matter more to the perpetrators of these strategies than to their victims.
A Horrifying Kind of War
For all of Moscow’s embrace of brutality in war, much of the toll of Russia’s wars may come down to a simple matter of the location of the fighting: often in large, opposition-held cities.
Throughout the modern era, urban sieges have consistently been among the bloodiest forms of warfare.
They are often defined by horrifying violence against civilians as invaders seek to root out strongholds of resistance from areas where perhaps millions of innocents still live. Mass homelessness and starvation are common.
As armed resistance grinds on, occupiers will often come to see whole populations as threats to be suppressed.
In World War II, both the U.S. and Soviet Union laid waste to German cities. American-led firebombing of German and Japanese cities killed hundreds of thousands.
It is a lesson that is hardly alien to Russians, who endured, in that war, some of the deadliest sieges in modern history.
“Where is mankind heading?” one survivor wrote in his diary amid Leningrad’s two-year encirclement by Nazi forces, in which 800,000 civilians died. “How will this most brutal carnage end? Dreadful questions!”