Formerly presenting the Chechen as a terrorist and today the Ukrainian as a Nazi pogromist, informational warfare has played a key role in the adversary’s demonization. This constant manipulation of images has legitimized violence when crimes were committed, whereas their systematic denial up to the highest levels, and the total absence of preventive measures, have played a posteriori
as a whitewasher of war violence.An Instrumental Approach to Civilians in Russian Military Thinking
Contemporary Russian military thinking is yet another enabler of war violence against civilians. Russian New Generation Warfare (NGW) does not constitute a formalized doctrine, but a corpus of military principles and concepts which find their origin in the imperial and Soviet wars, while being partly inspired by contemporary Western military thought. Yet it addresses the civilian factor on the modern battlefield, framing civilians as a pressure point to be leveraged to destabilize, disrupt, or shatter the adversary’s system from within. Civilians are to be used as a medium designed to exert an incremental pressure on the adversary’s military command and political leaders and shape their decision-making calculations and process.
As Lieutenant-Colonel (Res.) Daniel Rakov explains
, the civilian population is framed as a full‑fledged component of the adversary’s system, regardless of the conflict’s stage (ante bellum
, in bello
, and post bellum
). Civilians are to be frightened, demoralized, manipulated, polarized, or disoriented. Informational and psychological warfare stand out as the main tools to be used to apply a continuum of pressure on the adversary (from low-key and constant pressure to peaks of frightening methods). Exerting pressure on civilians is at times used either to prepare the ground for a conflict or to try to prevent its kinetic phase; alternatively, it can also be leveraged to consolidate the military gains reached on the battlefield or reduce the intensity and length of armed confrontation by pushing civilians to force their own government to capitulate.
When these non-kinetic means of pressure prove to be insufficient, other instruments of coercion are activated, together or separately, to obtain the desired effects. In the military field, a limited use of force is considered useful when it sows fear among civilians. In the economic field, seizing or destroying vital economic resources, in particular energy infrastructure, is a well-known demoralizing technique. In the diplomatic field, civilians are viewed as an instrument of pressure on political and military decision-makers to force them to enter negotiations, at the time deemed suitable for Russia.
The conceptualization of civilians as a lever of continuous pressure on the enemy system is not specific to Russian military thought. The international academic literature on civilians in modern warfare often criticizes Western military thoughts for priding themselves in developing concepts and tools aimed at minimizing collateral damage, while continuing to consider civilian casualties and destruction an inevitable phenomenon
However, Russian military thought has its own characteristics when it comes to civilians in modern warfare. First, civilians are viewed as a leverage of an integral, systemic, and multidimensional pressure on the enemy system through informational, psychological, economic, political, and military instruments, that are to be used ante bellum
, mainly in peacetime. A second specificity relates to the role allocated in Russian thinking to massive artillery fire. Considered a legitimate mode of action, mass artillery fire targets the civilian component of the enemy’s system, as illustrated by the two Chechen wars, Russia’s intervention in Syria, and the current modus operandi
adopted in Ukraine.
As Daniel Rakov further elaborates, a third specificity relates to the marginal status of civilian rights in Russian military thinking. The principle of protecting civilians in armed conflict is emphasized in the writings of Russian military academies. The General Military Regulations of the Armed Forces
of the Russian Federation recognize the principle of minimizing collateral damage, which includes the protection of civilians and their property. However, this issue is underdeveloped in Russian military thinking and academic literature: it is virtually absent from the 2005 Combat Charter
distributed to Russian soldiers, and barely mentioned in one of the most recent manuals
published in 2022 for officers. Moreover, and most significantly, Russian Armed Forces lack a prosecution mechanism for war crimes: soldiers are neither sanctioned nor judged before a military tribunal for that type of infraction.
In urban warfare, soldiers are generally confronted with a dilemma: abide by the principle of self‑preservation against the adversary or follow the principle of protecting civilians in the battlefield. In the case of the Russian army, the balance tilted sharply in favor of self-preservation because of deep-seated habits, such as war crime ignorance and denial, harsh punishment against soldiers failing to comply with the operational plan, and general disinterest in civilians’ lives. Taken together, these doctrinal and cultural characteristics of the Russian army contribute to diluting the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, which is increasingly tenuous in modern warfare and particularly difficult to maintain in Ukraine due to the widespread use of Territorial Defense Forces across the country and the decisive role that reservists and volunteers played in the first days of war to disrupt Russian invasion.A Conducive Context: War Violence as an Adaptation to Successive FiascosAnte bellum
, Russian information warfare and academic military thought created a climate conducive to violence and a fertile ground for targeting civilians. In bello
, the initial operational plan’s failure was an unforeseen, but irreversible, trigger of war violence. The civilian casualties and war crimes committed at the start of the invasion did not stem from the operational plan itself, but from its fiasco. Based on currently available sources, it appears that there was not, at the very beginning, a deliberate intention to kill Ukrainian civilians. Yet the first war crimes occurred quickly on the ground, relentless attacks resulting primarily from the setbacks of the Russian army.
When the operation was launched, the Russian Air Force was responsible for neutralizing Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense, while the elite commandos of the special operations forces were to swoop down on the capital to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership. The airborne operation on Hostomel Airport, located near Kyiv, failed, immediately compromising the initial military plan as a whole. The Russian army proved, moreover, incapable
of carrying out targeted high-precision strikes based on real-time intelligence, while acting cautiously so as to preserve civilian infrastructure in the hopes of being welcomed with “bread and salt.” This failure resulted from its inability to implement its reconnaissance-strike system, due to a precision rate
of guided munitions that is lower than Western standards. Those failures illustrate the gap between Russian contemporary military theory and reality. In theory, as Dima Adamsky explained in 2017, neutralization of anti-aircraft defense
forms the cornerstone of operations, whereas cross-domain coercion
constitutes the art of Russian strategy.
Despite these setbacks
, the Russian army continued the initial operational plan by invading more territories, dispersing its forces, and suffering heavy losses. Initially supposed to carry out a contactless operation, the Russian army rapidly got bogged down in urban areas and villages. Russian soldiers who, in principle, should not have had close contact with Ukrainian civilians
, ended up conquering and occupying a territory representing nearly a fifth of the country and controlling their local residents. The immediate brutality of the interaction between Russian soldiers and local residents can be attributed to several factors: the soldiers’ lack of operational and mental preparation, logistical problems of supplying basic products, the unexpectedly brave and defiant resistance of Ukrainians, the equation between resistant Ukrainians and Nazis, but also the Russian army’s huge human losses
since the invasion’s very first days.
Demoralized, drunk, or starving Russian soldiers burst into homes and shops, plundering shamelessly. Thrown into high-intensity combat without having been even warned
, they had not received clear and consistent instructions on how to behave with civilians, particularly with regard to the spoils of war. Discovering with amazement the opulence of well-kept houses, some soldiers, originating from some of Russia’s poorest and most remote regions, loaded washing machines and other consumer goods into the back of the tanks to send to Russia via Belarus or to resell them on markets
Others engaged in sexual violence with sometimes incredible cruelty. Based on concurring sources, some children were raped in front of their mothers (then vice versa
), as were elderly women, sometimes in their eighties, and at least one pregnant woman
. Once kidnapped, very young girls suffered gang rapes and beatings that left them mute and toothless. This ferocity shows that war-time sexual violence derived from a deep-seated propaganda dehumanizing the adversary and intended to both punish and threaten all civilians.
In late March 2022, Russian troops were ordered to leave the Kyiv and Sumi regions and rearticulate their forces in the Donbass. Reckoning with its own military setbacks, the Russian army has adapted after its massive losses: it returned to its old doctrine of indiscriminate fire
, by targeting civilian buildings and, since the Autumn of 2022, by deliberately striking critical infrastructure to cause as much collateral damage as possible.
With the overall brutalization of the conflict, acts of violence against civilians increased in the occupied territories. Among them, rape is an instrument of war: the highest rates of rape have, to date, been recorded
in the Kherson region (65), which fell into Russian hands early on and was occupied until its liberation in November 2022. These official complaints are only the visible tip of the iceberg, as reported
by Marta Havryshko. According to interviews she conducted with survivors, sexual violence has often been silenced, especially in villages with a patriarchal culture. Overall, rapes have served to humiliate and terrorize the population of the occupied territories in order to obtain their submission, but also to punish and break the spirits of the Ukrainian fighters serving on the front, as their wives and daughters have been intentionally targeted.A Culture of Punishment and Impunity as a Catalyzer of War-Time Violence
Finally, the intensity and scale of violence against Ukrainian civilians cannot be explained without taking into account the climate of brutality, institutionalized fear, and acceptance of violence that has developed in Russian society since the fall of the Soviet Union. Whether they are professional soldiers, volunteers, or mercenaries, Russian fighters wrestle with a routinization of random violence while being confronted with insoluble contradictions that blur common sense and moral standards. In Russian society, they know that any mere opposition (such as calling the war by its name) can lead to prison whereas the monstrous crimes of the past—including Stalin’s crimes—are addressed with relative indifference and impunity. In the army, they operate under a military culture that severely punishes minor disciplinary offenses or tactical errors while turning a blind eye to criminal acts committed against civilians, regardless of their scale or cruelty.
The Russian military is notoriously known for resorting to punishment and humiliation, perpetuating the Soviet tradition of permissive bullying and abuse perpetrated by older conscripts replace by on new recruits. This phenomenon, which sometimes goes as far as rape and murder, is called dedovshchina
, which literally means “the arbitrariness of the elders.” Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2007–2012) tried to reform the army
and curb these practices, but without obvious success. This culture of submission by terror undoubtedly played out in Ukraine when Russian soldiers had to choose between their self-preservation and respect for human life and the dignity of others.
This dilemma was thoroughly explained by Konstantin Yefremov, a Russian lieutenant of the 42nd motorized rifle division based in Chechnya. He was sent to Crimea on February 10, 2022, then served three months in the occupied region of Zaporizhzhia, where he witnessed first-hand the acts of torture that his superiors inflicted on captured Ukrainian snipers. In an interview
published at the beginning of February 2023, he confessed the uncertainties, fears, and hesitations that haunted him when serving in Ukraine. He was confronted with an excruciating choice: either defect and run the risk of spending 10 years in prison, or accept the crimes perpetrated by his army. Yefremov finally fled Russia in December 2022, but his case remains in the minority.
Moreover, the Russian army does not have a body of senior non-commissioned officers
(NCO), a crucial level of command to ensure the proper transmission and explanation of orders, to adapt them to the situation, but also to impose discipline and showcase an example to be followed. This lack of supervision has as its corollary a corporalization of the troop, i.e., its blind submission, and a style of command characterized by punishment for minor offences. Simple soldiers have little initiative and responsibility, while being subjected to significant pressure: their commanders expect them to apply the plan to the letter. If they fail, they face physical punishments, such as imprisonment, or symbolic punishments, such as degradation. This mode of operation may have encouraged soldiers to maximize collateral damage or, at least, not to seek to avoid it, when the expected operational and tactical gains could thus be achieved.
In the Russian military, the culture of punishment for minor offenses goes hand in hand with a norm of impunity (beznakazannost’
) for serious crimes, which the Kremlin now seems to openly cultivate, as in other past periods. Thus, on April 18, 2022, President Putin decorated the soldiers of the 64th motorized rifle brigade
whose responsibility in the Bucha massacre was later documented. In December 2022, the State Duma adopted at first reading a law guaranteeing immunity
to the military from the “special operation.” If further enshrined in the Duma, this change is supposed to be universally valid, as Russian national law has had primacy over international law
since the 2020 constitutional reform.
In Ukraine, this widespread culture of violence was amplified on the ground by the hateful ideology cultivated by a number of Russian volunteer battalions and various other armed groups. Formed in 2014 on ideological criteria
, these volunteer fighters are now
attached to the operational reserve (BARS, following the Russian acronym). Among them are, for instance, the “Russich” battalion whose commander glorifies crime and proclaims himself a “neo-Nazi and pagan,” or “the Imperial Legion” whose ultra-Orthodox commander claims to be waging a “religious war” so as not to let “the Russian Orthodox Church of Malorossiya” be under the control of the Greek Catholic Uniate Church.
With their reputation of ruthlessness, the fighters of Kadyrov and Wagner known as kadyrovsty
further contributed to the brutalization of the theater of operations and to the unleashing of violence not only against Ukrainian civilians, but also against Russian soldiers. Operating as the Praetorian Guard of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the kadyrovtsy
are officially attached to the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiâ
). At the beginning of the conflict, they were intentionally sent to Ukraine to sow panic among Ukrainian civilians. The wagnerovsty
refer to the mercenaries of the private military company Wagner, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former convict who serves as a henchman for the Russian president by investing in disinformation and mercenary activities.
Since the summer of 2022, Wagner recruited prisoners from penal colonies
to make up for their human losses and have “cannon fodder” to send to the front line. This type of paramilitary recruitment was supposed to minimize the social and reputational costs associated with Russian military losses. It also contributed to the dissemination on the battlefield of the violent norms of the “zeks” (prisoners of the camps) and the brutality of Russia’s carceral world, inherited from the Gulag. Some 40,000 soldier-prisoners were recruited on the promise of being granted amnesty and freedom should they survive. On February 9, 2023, Prigozhin acknowledged that
Wagner stopped enlisting prisoners (which was an official recognition of their active involvement in the Ukraine frontlines). In late March, he declared that 5,000 of them
had been freed after serving in Ukraine. According to Olga Romanova, president of the NGO Russia Behind Bars
, the Russian Ministry of Defense plans
to establish disciplinary battalions based on the model of the Soviet penal battalions of World War II (known as “shtrafbat”
) enlisting criminals from prison. Citing official Russian sources, Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the Russian human rights organization “No More Gulag”
that prisoners recently recruited by Wagner are deliberately frightened prior to their deployment to the frontline: they are forced
to watch filmed harassment and public executions of “deserters”—that is, fellow inmates who were sent to Ukraine and no longer agree to fight.Kadyrovsty
were also instrumental in intimidating and harassing Russian troops themselves. According to a document circulating in late summer 2022, a DNR–LNR militia commander wrote a complaint
to demand that kadyrovtsy
stop raping his men. Per Ukrainian sources, the role of kadyrovtsy
was to kill
any Russian soldier refusing to fight after the Russian army suffered heavy losses during the invasion’s first weeks. Among other examples, a Wagner deserter was brutally clubbed to death
in a video that Prigozhin hailed by calling the victim a “traitor.” Based on the testimony of an ethnically Russian soldier from the Akhmat volunteer battalion, the non-Chechens
fighters were sent to the front line, and “few came back,” which shows that the Ukraine war is also a trigger for increased inter-ethnic tensions among the different forces fighting on behalf of Moscow.
Finally, the conditions of recruitment and mass mobilization to Ukraine represent yet another dimension of war violence. At the beginning of the conflict, many soldiers were recruited in Russia’s poorest and disenfranchised autonomous republics, mainly Buryatia and Dagestan, where the army serves as the main employer and the exclusive social ladder. With the waves of “partial” mobilization in the fall of 2022, some 300,000 men
were mobilized by the presidential decree of September 21, 2022. The day before, the Duma adopted a series of amendments on the criminal responsibility of soldiers
that tightly sharpened the punishments associated with desertion, surrender to enemy forces, or refusal to fight. Many men have been recruited forcefully and randomly, regardless of their age or residency (including in big cities) and without previous military training. Some were even sent to the front despite a formal health exemption.
We contend that war crimes and violence ultimately stem from a logic of revenge and have served as an outlet for soldiers who fully understand that they are being sent “to the slaughterhouse.”