When Ukrainian forces retook Bucha, a neighbourhood in the Kyiv province, from the armed forces of Russia in early April, their cameras captured horrors. Civilians lying dead at the roadside. Mass graves. Dozens of those killed had their hands tied behind their backs.
The majority of those killed by Russian soldiers were fighting-age males, and the intention appears to have been for Russian forces to attack points of possible civic or partisan resistance. The easiest way to do that was to round up and execute members of the civilian population who may have troubled the occupiers in the future.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed, after only five weeks of fighting, over a thousand civilians according to United Nations figures – and likely thousands more whom official statistics have so far missed.
Wars of invasion always cause immense civilian casualties, even if attempts are made to minimise civilian deaths. But the Kremlin makes no such efforts, as evidenced by the pattern of Russian forces targeting non-combatants. While this includes civilians unable to escape the violence of war, it does not end there.
Also this week, the Wall Street Journal, London Times and open source investigators Bellingcat reported that participants in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, including the oligarch Roman Abramovich, showed symptoms consistent with poisoning by a chemical weapon.
The symptoms were, according to analysts, intended to frighten and to hurt rather than to kill – although Abramovich was quoted as asking doctors whether he and the others were dying.
The Russian state knows it can achieve its objectives by targeting people who are neither fighting nor in the field of battle. It has done so across the Middle East and Africa – and tested its techniques on how to most effectively undermine civic resistance at home.
Within the last few days, new reporting from Bellingcat has given more depth to a picture of Russian society which has become colder and more closed over the past decade – something that has intensified in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.
The report details the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a front-line Russian politician and opposition figure who was fatally shot close to the Kremlin in 2015. Nemtsov alleged that he was followed beforehand by a team from the FSB – Russia’s federal security service and successor to the KGB. The FSB is also known to have followed the twice-poisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza and the now-imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny before he was poisoned with a suspected nerve agent.
Intimidating and killing political opponents is a tactic used to disincentivise opposition. But a state like Vladimir Putin’s has also learnt how to undermine and destroy the institutions of civil society which could present a threat to the regime – both at home and aboard.
Putin’s regime is alleged to have orchestrated the murder of journalists critical of his rule, including the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, and to have been party to the suspicious death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was investigating official corruption, in jail. Although these actions bring international condemnation and, in Magnitsky’s name, economic sanctions, they are judged to be worth it.
Putin applies the same tactics in his wars abroad. In Ukraine, Syria and Chechnya, Russian forces have deliberately targeted civilians.
In the five weeks to date of Russia’s war on Ukraine, its forces have killed at least six journalists. When a Sky News film crew was ambushed in the first week of March, and announced itself to be press in a lull in the gunfire, Russian forces continued shooting.
In Syria’s civil war, Russia’s contribution has been mainly aerial. Still, Russian aircrafts have launched strikes on bakeries, bread lines and markets. Russian attacks in Syria have bombed hospitals over four hundred times.
In this way, tough defenders do not need to be defeated on the battlefield. Without food, without electrical power, civilians begin to starve and to see their lives collapse. Without hospitals they die more commonly and from less severe causes. By destroying civilian life, resistance can be reduced, causing defenders to often surrender or withdraw.
Just like Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used the same tactics of suppression of a free press, ‘disappearing’ and torturing critics in regime prisons rather than at Russian hands.
In Syria, much of the ‘on the ground’ Russian influence was through mercenaries, mainly of the Wagner Group – a private but nonetheless Russian-government-affiliated military contractor. Wagner mercenaries have also been present in Libya, Sudan, several countries across sub-Saharan Africa, and in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Wagner operates where Russian forces cannot officially go, and are known across the Middle East and Africa for their brutality. Wagner fighters have been accused of severe human rights abuses in conflict, including torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings.
Analysts The New Arab spoke to have call the mercenaries ‘animals’ for their seemingly random and unmotivated cruelty against non-combatants, including, it is alleged, a Syrian deserter known as Hamadi Bouta who was tortured and killed on camera, and his body mutilated, by Wagner forces in 2017 .
This footage was so graphic and grotesque that it caused international outrage, including investigation by the free Russian press, and the beginnings of a legal challenge in the Russian courts against the Wagner Group.
Bouta’s murder could be claimed to serve the most tangential military function – disincentivising and punishing desertion. But in practice this footage depicted vicious cruelty for its own sake, something the Wagner Group practices with official Kremlin toleration if not direct orders.
‘I wouldn’t say it’s an explicit objective to target civilians – as perhaps the larger indiscriminate attacks, like airstrikes, are – but rather it’s the result of several contributing factors,’, said Sumaya Tabbah, a postgraduate student at American University’s School of International Service.
‘Most relevant when considering private military companies, mercenaries and contractors is that they aren’t ‘technically’ sanctioned by the state, so the lack of accountability allows for fewer checks. There’s a lack of accountability … but more so through a lack of will on Russia’s end to hold mercenaries accountable,’ she added.
The gap between a deliberate Russian policy of attacking non-combatant targets and Wagner Group members engaging in this kind of violence is sometimes difficult to categorise, as is the group’s relationship to the Russian state.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner forces working closely with UN peacekeepers were accused of ‘grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law’, including unlawful imprisonment, torture, summary murder, and attacks on humanitarian organisations, by UN investigators.
‘If the Russian state has no problem breaking the laws of war, devaluing civilian life, supporting Assad to do the same, why should it hold mercenaries accountable for the same violations?’ Tabbah said.
The official Russian state and unofficial Wagner Group patterns of warfare often complement each other. Reports of Wagner Group members fighting in Ukraine, and even leaving African deployments in order to do so, have been growing for weeks. There have been reports that Wagner Group members have been tasked with assassinating Ukrainian political leadership, including the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In Ukraine, official Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties, including among conscripts, something which is politically risky for Putin and risks making the war – so far seemingly supported by a majority of Russians – unpopular. Wagner groups, however, are disposable. They die in large numbers in foreign conflicts, and commit crimes against civilians and non-combatants, largely under the radar.
In a war which has included the deliberate killing and kidnapping of local government officials, including mayors, both official Russian forces and Wagner have followed the tactics seen in Russia and across the Middle East and Africa: to target non-combatants and civil society in order to destroy civilian resistance, without which an organised and high-morale defence cannot be mounted.
So far in Ukraine, this is not working. Ukrainians are largely appalled by claims that Russia has started forcibly deporting up to 400,000 Ukrainians into Russia. Collaborationist authorities intended to usurp local civic organisations and local government have been met with hostility, including partisan violence.
Attacking negotiators, and critics, is one way to overcome weaknesses on the battlefield. The will to fight can be sapped even from capable opponents by destroying their societies and political systems around them.
But in Ukraine at least, so far, this strategy has failed to quell resistance. It remains to be seen whether the strategy will be ended and replaced as untenable or, in a worrying prospect, only intensified.
This piece was originally published in The New Arab.