Summary: as the war in Ukraine continues with missiles raining down and a massive column of armoured vehicles heads toward Kyiv, fears are growing that the Russian president is prepared to inflict massive civilian harm in order to achieve his objectives.
With the question being asked repeatedly and one that often focusses on the mental state of Vladimir Putin – some commentators are describing him as exhibiting the tendencies of a psychopath – a useful reality check is to examine how Putin conducted military operations in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000 and since 2015 in Syria.
Regarding Chechnya, the capital city Grozny was reduced to near rubble as his air force remorselessly bombed it into submission with massive civilian casualties. Though reported in the media at the time, there was little international outcry. And chillingly the same scenario has played out in Syria where the Russian intervention turned the tide of the war in favour of Bashar al-Assad.
And again the response from the international community can at best be described as muted. Many in the Middle East, particularly those who have been caught in theatres of war, have reflected with justifiable anger on how international media has responded to the crisis in the Ukraine in a radically different manner. As have governments and sports bodies across the world with the most severe sanctions rapidly put in place.
That attitude is well captured by the thoughts of a CBS reporter on the ground in Kyiv: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know like Iraq and Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.” It is an attitude repeated with monotonous regularity by commentators expressing their shock, outrage and dismay at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Where, ask Yemenis, Iraqis, Libyans and Syrians, is the outrage for atrocities inflicted on civilians in their countries by outside forces or forces supported by outsiders such as the warlord Khalifa Haftar backed by the UAE, France and others? Palestinians ask why over decades the world has allowed the seizure of their land by the Israelis.
It can be argued, as Dmitri Alperovitch effectively does in a series of tweets, that Putin after more than twenty years in power has not changed. What has changed is how the world has responded. So let us then examine Putin’s strategy in Syria. In September of last year Airwars released a seminal investigation into Russian strikes. It detailed that since 2015 Assad and Russian forces have systematically carried out attacks on civilian targets – markets, hospitals, schools, residential neighbourhoods and refugee camps in rebel-held territory. Included is the relentless pounding of Syria’s second city Aleppo. Airwars has estimated that since the Russians entered the war, its forces have carried out 39,000 strikes.
It is alleged that this campaign of terror against civilians has resulted in more than 23,000 deaths and over 40,000 wounded. As Airwars noted on 22 February:
Russian involvement in Syria has been characterised by a heavy reliance on unguided munitions, including cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles. Videos uploaded by the Russian Ministry of Defence in the early years of the conflict demonstrated the low levels of accuracy achieved when using unguided munitions.
In our 8 October podcast we spoke with Airwars’ Emily Tripp:
At Airwars we don’t pass judgment. We can never know the intention of an actor. Especially if they don’t do their own investigations, and they don’t acknowledge the harm that they’re causing. What I can say is that we have a number of cases, thousands of cases where civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, marketplaces are being attacked. Many cases have what’s called double tap strikes, which is where a second strike occurs after a first strike targeting specifically those who are responding to that event, the first responders, the healthcare workers, the White Helmets, and those you can deduce would be a kind of deliberate attack on civilians.
With reports that the Russians are using cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles – vacuum bombs – in Ukraine we asked Emily about the impact of such munitions, used repeatedly in Syria. About vacuum bombs she said:
This is a particularly nasty weapon, a high explosive weapon that really causes significant damage to infrastructure. It uses a mechanism where it sucks the air out of the place where it lands and crushes bodies and causes just massive infrastructure damage and wide injuries and civilian harm. And what we were pointing to (in the report) was that, of all of those allegations we have of civilian harm, there were over 200 reports with local Syrians themselves saying, “we think that this was a vacuum missile”, whether or not that’s the case, it’s very difficult to actually know. But I think it just shows the kind of wide ranging damage that these weapons are causing in Syria.
Airwars makes the point that though other foreign forces engaged in Syria have investigated and admitted causing civilian harm, sometimes only tepidly and with great hesitancy as is the case with the UK, other times somewhat more openly and honestly as is the case with the US, Russia has never in more than six years admitted to causing even a single civilian casualty. It is a lie that is once again being perpetuated in the Ukraine campaign, even as civilian casualties mount inexorably.
In understanding and attempting to answer the question of what Putin does next, one needs only to look at his past record. Like any violent criminal or serial killer he has his modus operandi. It is to be hoped for the sake of the people of Ukraine that international opprobrium and revulsion, so appallingly absent in previous Putin war crimes, will cause him to stay his hand. However, as the world now wakes up to the threat of a violent dictator, it may want to ask itself how its silence about his previous atrocities has served to empower this latest one.