It depends on when you are reading this but it’s possible that as you do, Russian missiles are still falling on Kyiv. The Ukrainian capital, and cities across the country, have been subject to a devastating missile barrage last night and this morning.
The attacks on Kyiv are intended to create nothing but terror. Missiles fell in succession on civilian areas: children’s playgrounds, ordinary business areas, office buildings. They arrived at the height of the morning rush hour, hoping to kill as many commuters and families as possible, and the drumbeat has continued after that.
Residential and business areas of the Ukrainian capital that had broadly been spared missile and drone attack are now targets.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Zaporizhzhia – a city Russia claims to control as the de jure capital of its newly ‘annexed’ Zaporozhye Oblast – to be bombed. There, the missiles hit apartment buildings over and over again. Rescue workers said it was unlike anything they had seen before.
These attacks are senseless. They serve no military purpose. Children in playgrounds have no use in combat, after all. Very little battlefield advantage is gained by forcing inhabitants of the Ukrainian capital temporarily into metro stations to shelter.
This appears to be a move of almost pure viciousness and vindictiveness from the Russian side, in reaction to the bombing of the Kerch bridge. Before its partial destruction, the bridge used to connect occupied Crimea to Russia proper. Ukrainians had long threatened the bridge and promised its destruction. Its eventual bombing looks like a triumph of Ukrainian special operations.
As compensation for the bombing of the bridge, these attacks are not of the same kind. They hit nothing militarily significant. The Kerch bridge was a vital artery of Russian logistics, which supplied the occupying forces in Crimea. Its cutting severed a route those forces might have used to retreat. Now the Crimean garrison is scared and undersupplied.
Bombing office buildings in Kyiv, and apartment complexes in Zaporizhzhia, does not have anything like the same effect. These are attacks with essentially no military rationale. Those who might compare this indiscriminate bombardment with the behaviour of tyrannical Middle Eastern governments are not wrong. We have seen this pattern before: where civilian targets are hit because the positions and bases of rebel forces are too elusive or mobile, and it’s easier to demolish a city district than find the fighters sheltering within it.
In Syria and other places, we have seen Russian use of missiles and airpower with no military objective beyond spreading terror. Russia’s invading army in Ukraine is filled with veterans of Syria’s war who know no other way to fight.
One day ago, Sergey Surovikin was appointed the overall commander of Russia’s invasion. He superintended a Russian intervention in Syria which mostly consisted of crimes against civilians carried out from the air. What he did to Aleppo in defence of Bashar al-Assad, it seems, he wishes to do to Kyiv. But this will not work.
‘Terror bombing’, as this is called, is often misunderstood. Mainly, it is designed to scare soldiers by demonstrating to them that they face overwhelming battlefield odds.
In irregular conflicts, it works to a degree when fighting a loose coalition of rebel forces whose support and families come from the areas being reduced to rubble. They see their homes destroyed, the local area from which their recruits come burnt to ashes, and they eventually lose heart.
But sovereign states with intact armed forces do not react this way – especially when the battlefield is far from the city being attacked. The bombing of London in the Blitz did not stop British and Empire forces fighting in North Africa. Sovereign states do not surrender to aerial bombing of their capitals. As Ukraine has already proven, these crimes can only make them more determined.
But Ukrainian anger will also be directed at its allies. Its leaders will argue – quite correctly – that Nato countries might have mitigated this toll. Western countries to a man have sophisticated air defence systems that Ukraine has long requested. They would not have entirely prevented this from happening – no system is perfect – but it is clear they would have helped.
For months, Nato countries have strung Ukraine along. First saying that there were not enough air defence systems going spare. Then declaring that the systems were so complex and difficult to use that by the time Ukrainians could be trained to work them, their effectiveness would be muted.
Ukrainian fury is wholly justified. Their rhetorical questions will grow louder. Why, precisely, were these systems held back until now? What possible strategic purpose did it serve for Germany, Britain and America to allow Kyiv to be deluged with missiles? Which specific geniuses in the defence ministries thought entirely defensive weaponry like this a step too far?
That training on air defence systems did not begin in late February, and the things themselves did not arrive only a couple of months after that, is now a lasting shame for Ukraine’s allies. A few more playgrounds would have survived to attest to the usefulness of air defences if they had.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.