The Russian army has a long history of brutality — Ukraine is no exception
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.
Following the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks fought a five-year civil war to consolidate control of the country. The conflict took the lives of perhaps 10 million people, most of them civilians. The Red Army and the Cheka (secret police) employed a strategy of “mass terror.” “No mercy for these enemies of the people,” Vladimir Lenin declared. He described anyone who opposed the revolution or even resisted communism as “these dregs of humanity, these hopelessly decayed and atrophied limbs, this contagion, this plague, this ulcer that socialism has inherited from capitalism.” Dehumanization always precedes mass murder.
The Soviet Union entered WWII not as an ally of the west, but as Germany’s partner in carving up Poland. Although it did little fighting, the Red Army captured up to 250,000 Polish prisoners, which it handed over to the notorious NKVD, or internal security service. In the spring of 1940, the NKVD summarily executed 21,857 prisoners of war, including approximately 10,000 Polish officers, in the infamous Katyn Forest massacre.
When they turned on their former allies in June of 1941, the Germans unleashed a reign of terror on the Soviet Union, which the Soviets reciprocated on their march westward. Little quarter was given by either side. Civilians suffered the worst atrocities, but 3.3 million Soviet and 1.1 million German POWs died in captivity.
Red Army atrocities did not end with the fighting. Soviet soldiers raped as many as 2 million German women, from young girls to old women; an estimated 240,000 of them died from injuries, venereal disease and suicide as a result. Rapes also occurred in other occupied countries. When communist leader Milovan Djilas complained to Josef Stalin about the sexual assault perpetrated by Soviet troops in Yugoslavia, the premier replied, “Can’t you understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman?”
Such brutality continued throughout the Cold War. When they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Soviet forces encountered unexpected resistance, as they have in Ukraine. They responded with scorched earth and mass murder. They even used mines disguised as toys to maim children. More than 1.3 million Afghans, most of them civilians, died in what many experts describe as genocide.
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.
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.
As individuals, Russian soldiers are no more brutal than any other. But they 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. Now he has appointed Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, “the butcher of Syria,” to command Russian operations in Ukraine.
The United States and its NATO allies have walked a careful path between aiding Ukraine and not provoking Putin into a wider war. We may be at the point were that careful strategy no longer works. Perhaps it is time to supply Zelensky with those Mig 29s.
One thing is certain: appeasing dictators or confronting them with half measures doesn’t work.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Conventional and Unconventional War: A History of Conflict in the Modern World.”
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