Putin’s war against Ukrainian civilians is not new — nor will it work

A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces assists a woman to cross the street in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Associated Press/Andrew Marienko
A volunteer of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces assists a woman to cross the street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Russia’s armored offensive in Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly believed would be over in a few days, has been stymied by fierce Ukrainian resistance and is bogged down without having taken any major cities. The world has watched in horror as Russian forces have turned their guns, bombs, and missiles on civilian areas of these cities.

This is not collateral damage. Russian ordnance is being lobbed into neighborhoods, hitting apartment buildings, schoolshospitals, and even a theater specifically marked as sheltering children.

This is intentional targeting of civilians.

Commentators have been quick to argue that the “rubble-ization” of urban areas is a favorite Russian strategy, pointing to the bombing of Syrian cities like Aleppo, the destruction of Grozny (twice) in the Chechen Wars of the 1990s, which left tens of thousands dead, and the Soviet counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which killed roughly 1 million civilians. They are not wrong.

Yet labeling the intentional targeting of civilians as a uniquely Russian practice is misleading. In my book, “Targeting Civilians in War,” I documented over 50 such campaigns in interstate wars alone (there are even more in civil wars, which are more numerous). These campaigns ranged from siege warfare against cities (like the Prussian siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War) to starvation blockades (by Britain against the Central Powers in World War I) to urban area bombing (Britain against Germany from 1942 to 1945 and the U.S. versus Japan in 1945) to ethnic cleansing and genocide (Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front in World War II). There was nothing incidental about the civilian deaths caused by these strategies; rather, they were the intended result.

Why do states do this to innocent civilians in wartime? The principal reason germane to the Russia-Ukraine case is they get frustrated or desperate. This frustration can result from one or both of two factors: failing to win a quick and decisive victory or suffering (or anticipating) high human costs of fighting.

In the former, states rarely plan to wage extended battles of attrition; they would prefer to defeat their opponents with alacrity and avoid a costly and prolonged bloodletting. Examples of such plans include German strategies in both world wars, one of which (in the Battle of France) succeeded brilliantly whereas the other (the Schlieffen Plan) failed, resulting in a brutal stalemate on the Western Front.

Relatedly, states also turn to civilian victimization when they suffer high costs — measured primarily in terms of soldier’s lives — or anticipate suffering high costs. The descent into trench warfare in 1914 prompted Britain to escalate its naval blockade against the Central Powers to stop all imports of food. Similarly, following the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (supported by Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Truman) ordered the destruction of North Korean cities and towns with incendiary munitions. And the anticipation of a deadly invasion of the Japanese home islands in 1945 contributed to the firebombing and eventual atomic bombing of Japan.

Russia’s predicament in Ukraine bears a striking resemblance to these past instances of civilian victimization. Putin’s vision of a quick and decisive conquest of Ukraine has devolved into a costly slugfest that shows no sign of abating anytime soon. The unexpected ferocity of Ukraine’s defenders (augmented by plentiful Western firepower) and the incompetence and poor morale of Putin’s own forces have stopped his lightning attack in its tracks. Images of charred Russian armored vehicles and destroyed helicopters abound on the internet.

When viewed historically, Putin’s war on Ukrainian civilians is thus not terribly surprising. The hope, as with all such past campaigns, is to inflict enough pain on noncombatants that their leaders capitulate to halt the bloodshed — or that the people themselves rise up and demand an end to the war.

Punishment strategies based on targeting civilians, however, rarely work.

It is true that states that engage in such behavior sometimes win wars — witness the Allies in World War II. Yet, research on strategic bombing of civilian populations shows that it contributes little or nothing to victory. Other work finds that campaigns of civilian targeting on average make little difference except when a belligerent’s military has already lost the war on the battlefield.

Thus, while Putin’s attack on Ukrainian civilians is predictable, its probable outcome is as well.

No Ukrainian city has capitulated in the face of ferocious bombardment. Instead, the onslaught has bred hatred for Russia and rallied Ukrainians to resist. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian men have returned from abroad to fight for their country and the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows no signs of giving up.

Putin thus has succeeded only in galvanizing his enemy to fight even harder to thwart his invasion.

Alexander B. Downes is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of “Targeting Civilians in War” and “Catastrophic Success: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Goes Wrong,” both from Cornell University Press.

Tags Anti-Russian sentiment Armed Attack civilian attacks Civilian casualties civilians man-made disasters Military doctrines Military strategy Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Strategic bombing Ukraine Vladimir Putin War

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