The playbook involves besieging cities, targeting civilians and starvation – we can’t abandon Ukraine to this terrible fate
Russia’s bombardment of the city of Kharkiv marked the start of a new phase in its campaign against Ukraine – and one that appeared timed to reinforce Moscow’s demands at the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia taking place at the same moment in Belarus.
The failure to achieve the swift victory in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin seems to have been expecting will mean the country finds itself facing Russia’s capacity to win wars not through adroit use of modern equipment and motivated, professional troops, but through bludgeoning its opponents into submission at a distance.
Russia’s way of war has remained consistent because it consistently brings success. And that involves targeting populated areas, to cause the maximum suffering among civilians and force its victims to submit in order to bring that suffering to an end. The attack on Kharkiv may just be the first instance of medieval levels of brutality and viciousness inflicted on Ukraine’s civilian population – just made all the more devastating by Russia’s 21st-century weapons of destruction.
Russia is likely to repeat what it sees as a war-winning tactic of besieging cities and exploiting the destruction of their infrastructure to leave their inhabitants facing intolerable conditions. The question may soon be how long the millions of Ukrainians who have remained in major cities can survive in underground shelters while Russia does its best to deny them access to food, water and medical supplies. The only restraining factor on Russia’s campaign of destruction is likely to be the knowledge that cities that have been reduced to rubble are harder to fight into and capture than ones that can be seized intact.
To think Russia would not resort to terror campaigns to achieve its war aims is to ignore the example of Chechnya and also of Russia’s intervention in Syria. There, many at first thought that Russian bomb and missile strikes on civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools and water treatment plants were the result of incompetence or error. They only gradually realised that this was in fact deliberate policy – bringing the conflict to an end as rapidly as possible by ensuring that civilian support for resistance was crushed.
In Ukraine, Russia does not appear yet to have employed chemical weapons. But again, following the experience of Syria, Moscow is in no doubt as to their devastating effect as a terror weapon, and nobody should be surprised if and when they do make an appearance.
There’s little to constrain Russia, which has always been impervious to western horror and condemnation. There’s little likelihood that Russia will be deterred by the prospect of outrage at home either, even if knowledge of what its military is doing abroad filters through to domestic audiences. Moscow has taken steps in advance to ensure the truth does not reach its population. The ban on the Russian media using the words “war” or “invasion” to describe the conflict with Ukraine builds on decades of preparation to secure Russia’s “national information space” against inconvenient facts.
And even as sanctions start to bite ordinary people hard and the Russian government scrambles to contain the damage to its economy, the scope for public discontent or protest to change anything has also been pre-empted. Russia has not only already shown its willingness to crush protest by its own people brutally, but has substantial capabilities in reserve for inflicting mass casualties on them should the situation require it.
On the frontlines too, we may have seen video of disoriented and demotivated Russian soldiers taken captive, but the continuing bombardments of Ukraine’s cities shows that there are many more who are willing to obey orders to commit war crimes.
One of the many tragedies of this war is that the only thing the west supplied to Ukraine in abundance before it started was missed opportunities. Now, Russia will want to win quickly, before the massively increased aid to Ukraine announced by its western partners has time to be absorbed into its armed forces and build resilience and capacity to withstand the Russian onslaught. The startling reversal in Europe’s approach to Moscow seen in recent days will provide much-needed support to Ukraine’s capacity to resist – as long as it’s not too little, too late. But alongside military supplies such as arms, ammunition and body armour, Ukraine will be desperately in need of medical aid and humanitarian support for vast numbers of displaced people.
And this is not just an urgent challenge for Ukraine. The potential for Russian military success or failure is still, at this point, an open question. But one thing that is beyond doubt is that if current Russian tactics continue, it will create a humanitarian disaster on a scale Europe has not seen in decades. Together with rapidly rebuilding their conventional military defences, EU states and the UK must brace themselves for the social impact this will inevitably bring. The movements of population westwards will be comparable with those at the end of the second world war, as Russia reasserted its grip on the countries of eastern Europe. There’s little doubt that Russia will then be eager to exploit the flows of refugees to harm the west – building on its test runs in 2015-16 against Norway and Finland, when Russian organised crime was allowed to capitalise on the situation, and last year against Poland, when flows of migrants were manipulated and brutalised by Putin’s close allies in Belarus.
But in Ukraine itself, Russia will soon want to present President Zelensky with a terrible choice: to continue to resist, and fight for freedom and independence at an appalling cost in deaths of civilians and destruction of Ukraine’s cities; or to accept Russia’s terms to preserve life even at the cost of submitting once again to Moscow’s rule.
It is not the first time the people of Ukraine have faced this choice. It will be to the eternal shame of Europe if they are left to face it again today.
Keir Giles works with the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House. He is the author of Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West