The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 1, April 2023

Between Intentionality and Inevitability:

Uncovering the Enablers of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

Sarah Fainberg and Céline Marangé

The invasion of Ukraine was conceived and prepared as a large-scale repetition of the 2014 annexation of Crimea; it was supposed to illustrate the Russian army’s ability to conduct a “contactless,” surgical, swift, and complex military operation. In the initial operational plan, collateral damage was to remain limited. Avoiding civilian casualties and limiting the destruction of civilian objects were seen as two of the cornerstones of the operation’s success. The objective was to create favorable conditions for Ukrainian civilians so as to contain their potential resistance. Meanwhile, most critical national infrastructure (CNI) was to be preserved to facilitate the establishment of a pro-Russian regime following the overthrow of President Zelensky, who was expected to flee the country or be liquidated.

In the months leading up to the invasion, the Kremlin intensified its anti-Ukrainian information campaign. In the summer of 2021, Vladimir Putin published a long article claiming the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians and challenging the very existence of the Ukrainian nation. On the eve of the war, he forged a common enemy, “the Kiev regime,” that was labeled “Nazi” and accused of committing a “genocide in the Donbass.” In his “address to the Russian nation” of February 21, 2022, the Russian president presented Ukrainian statehood as a fiction deprived of historical roots. In the early morning of February 24, in a veiled declaration of war, he addressed Ukrainian civilians and soldiers directly, framing the imminent “special military operation” as a brotherly liberation campaign. That same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that he had ordered Ukrainian fighters to be treated “with respect.” The Kremlin’s preparation of the Ukrainian public to the invasion in the informational space was intended to legitimize the coup and guarantee its success by inciting Ukrainians to cooperate and capitulate.

How is it that Russia’s full-scale military intervention so rapidly degenerated into a brutal conflict with war crimes and civilian casualties multiplying in the first days of the invasion? If there were no initial intention to deliberately harm civilians, why did an unbridled approach to violence prevail so quickly on the battlefield? Do the Russian army’s war crimes and violence result from a strategic political and military design or even a directive “from above,” aimed at subjugating Ukraine by all means? Do they derive from an ad hoc adaptation of the Russian army, which had to use additional coercive tools to compensate for its operational and tactical failures? Or do they proceed from a downward moral spiral of Russian forces, who resorted to violence to channel their frustration and quickly impose their rule in the conquered and occupied territories?
We argue that Russia’s wartime violence towards Ukrainian civilians has been multidimensional, deriving from a top-down and intentional policy of terror and from a grassroots and inevitable downward spiral into violence on the ground. This research thus highlights the complex mix of ideological, conceptual, contextual, structural, and cultural enablers of violence.
First, there is the toxic power of Russian information warfare and its relentless incitement to anti‑Ukrainian hatred and violence, going so far as to compare Ukraine to a woman who must be sexually subjugated. Then there are doctrinal causes related to the instrumentalization of civilians on the battlefield in contemporary Russian military thought. There is also the role of military contingency: the first two weeks’ military fiasco, the sheer mental and logistical unpreparedness of Russian troops, combined with the pressure exerted on the lower-rank soldiers, led to an unleashing of violence on the ground. Finally, there are cultural and structural factors: Moscow’s perennial imperial tradition of contempt for Ukraine, the routinization of violence within Russian society, and the Russian army’s pervasive organizational culture of humiliation and punishment were all catalyzers of violence once the operation was launched.

Tentative Typology of Russian War Violence

Let’s begin with a provisional overview of war violence and war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine during the first year of the Russia–Ukraine war (February 24, 2022–February 24, 2023). War crimes are listed in Article 8 of the Rome Statute. They include violations of the laws and customs of war, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and its First Additional Protocol, and other particularly serious violations of the law of armed conflict which, according to military customs codified subsequently in treaties, call for sparing the lives of non-combatants and protecting the wounded, sick, shipwrecked, and prisoners of war.

As of February 6, 2023, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 18,817 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 7,155 dead, of which 438 were children. The military losses on the Ukrainian side are classified and considered to be very high. The Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil society association, and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union have documented war crimes since the war began in 2014. As part of the “Tribunal for Putin” project, they have compiled a database which, since February 24, 2022, has recorded over 34,000 “documented atrocities” likely to constitute war crimes. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Political Information has meanwhile established a digital platform collecting visual evidence of Russian crimes.

Based on available sources, we mapped out four main types of Russian war violence in Ukraine. Some prevailed in the first weeks; others were used at a later stage; most war violence actions and crimes, though, ran year-round. The first category of war violence includes indiscriminate killings, physical and sexual violence, along with robbery and looting: those crimes occurred in a context of growing interactions between Russian invading troops and conquered towns and villages' local residents. The Bucha massacre, the chronology of which was thoroughly investigated, is a case in point. Killings of civilians, who were summarily executed or shot in the street, amounted to 650 in December 2022. These figures do not account for the violent deaths that have occurred in territories that remain under Russian military occupation.

Regarding conflict-related sexual crimes, only 155 prompted judicial investigations according to the General Prosecutor of Ukraine. Yet this figure does not reflect the scope of sexual crimes according to Ukrainian historian Marta Havryshko, a specialist of wartime sexual violence who has collected the testimonies of sexual crimes’ survivors in Ukraine. According to a UN commission of inquiry, in the first months of the invasion, the victims of sexual violence were between 4- and 82-years-old. Testimonies collected by social workers prove that sexual violence has frequently been accompanied by acts of cruelty, as illustrated by the filmed castration of a Ukrainian fighter.

The second category of war violence encompasses the war-induced and colossal material damage that has directly affected civilians. Here one should distinguish between the Russian army’s collateral damage and its deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. At the beginning of the war, the Russian army did not avoid collateral damage due to its incapacity to effectively implement its reconnaissance-strike complex vision, i.e., conducting high-precision strikes based on real-time intelligence. Since the successful Ukrainian counter-offensives in the autumn of 2022, however, civilian infrastructure and buildings were damaged as part of a deliberate destruction strategy. The Russian army has massively resorted to artillery fire in combat zones and improved its deep strikes performance, targeting residential buildings and, above all, critical infrastructure, in particular, electrical and hydraulic infrastructure. The goal is obviously to accelerate the Ukrainian economy’s exhaustion while at the same time demoralizing civilians by depriving them of electricity, heating, and running water.

In one year, some 20,000 buildings and 120,000 houses were destroyed throughout Ukraine. UNESCO confirms damage to 238 cultural sites, including 105 religious buildings, 18 museums, and 11 libraries. The highly urbanized Donbass region continues to be ravaged by artillery fire and urban fighting and is massively contaminated with landmines. Satellite imagery shows that, in Bakhmut, where fierce fighting continues, around 5,500 out of 28,000 buildings were already damaged in mid-January 2023. Similarly, towns such as Mariupol or Popasna were reduced to ruined fields. In the Kharkiv region, more than 600 residential buildings were destroyed in just the first month of the war after a year of war, 6,116 buildings were destroyed in Kharkiv itself, including 3,352 tenements, 1,809 houses, and 280 schools.

The third category of war crimes relates to de facto institutionalized violence targeting civilians and prisoners of war in Russian-occupied territories. There, Russian authorities reinforced their repressive apparatus: militias from the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk were joined by detachments of the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) and other security services making three‑month rotations in the annexed territories. Those security units have had free rein to maintain order and unmask “saboteurs” and “infiltrators.” Anyone suspected of collaboration or even mere identification with Ukraine is interrogated and often tortured. Moreover, Russian occupying forces have imposed a coercive Russification policy combining the compelled renunciation to Ukrainian citizenship, complete revision of school curricula, compulsory conscription of men, and forced population displacements.

Meanwhile Russian authorities set up a full-fledged carceral network. According to the Center for Civil Liberties (as of February 2023), 20,000 Ukrainians were being held prisoner in the occupied territories, including those imprisoned in “DNR–LNR.” Some civilians, especially women, are imprisoned in Russia itself, without trial or access to lawyers, in preventive detention centers (SIZO in Russian). Captured soldiers and arrested or abducted civilians are detained together in 27 “filtration camps.” Ukrainian fighters released in prisoner swaps report physical and psychological pressure, torture, and ill-treatment; they were undernourished, received no care whatsoever, and sometimes had to drink dirty water.

It appears that this prison system was established upstream, in the weeks preceding the invasion, and extended after the conquest of Mariupol in April 2022, in order to sort out “harmful elements” from harmless people. Detained civilians are subjected to interrogations, humiliations, and body searches. Their biometric data is collected and their activities on social networks verified. A war wound or a tattoo is enough to qualify them as enemies. The use of electric shocks and beatings are attested, as well as ideological re-education sessions for detainees deemed “disloyal.” The extent of the phenomenon remains difficult to establish. In August 2022, the US State Department estimated that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian civilians (including thousands of children) went through this archipelago of pretrial and extrajudicial detention.

Finally, Ukraine’s migratory chaos makes up a fourth category of war violence. Russia leveraged Ukraine’s migration crisis — of a magnitude unmatched in Europe since World War II — to weaken the Ukrainian government and sow panic among European leaders. At the end of January 2023, there were 5.4 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine, as well as 8,046,560 Ukrainian refugees in Europe and around one million in Russia.

Ukrainian authorities have thus far identified 16,226 children deported from annexed territories to Russia. An in-depth investigation by the Observatory of Conflicts at Yale University confirms the deportation of at least 6,000 children and their placement in 43 identified places where some are subjected to political re-education and held against their family’s will. In a decree on May 30, 2022, Putin simplified the naturalization procedures for orphans coming from Ukraine. Russian sources reported the adoption of thousands of Ukrainian infants and toddlers by families in Russia in 2022. Ultimately, Russia’s relentless and multi-dimensional war violence culminated in this child abduction policy conducted under the cover of “humanitarian” considerations.

Informational Warfare as Main Matrix of Russian War Crimes

The first enabler of war violence is Russia’s continuous and systematic information warfare designed to discredit and destabilize Ukraine since the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005. It also set an ideological climate conducive to violence during the eight years that preceded the 2022 invasion. Russia’s official discourse draws on an imperial tradition of contempt for the “Little Russians” (a derogatory term designating Ukrainians). It recycles post-WWII Soviet propaganda’s clichés systematically equating Ukrainian nationalism, however modest it may be, with the “fascist enemy.” Therefore, Russia’s justification of the “special military operation” lies on a well-polished narrative: by turning its eyes westwards, Ukraine strayed from its natural historical trajectory, its leaders proved to be zealous collaborators of the hateful “collective West,” and both the Ukrainian government and the West cynically take Ukrainian civilians as hostages with the goal of strategically weakening Russia.

In the months leading to the invasion, the Kremlin’s informational warfare was activated on three directions: the domestic front, the Ukrainian public, and the international audience, primarily towards the West. Since February 2022, Russian propaganda adopted an unbridled communication strategy on television and other communication platforms. This campaign aims at denying the very existence of Russian war violence and crimes, while dehumanizing the Ukrainian leadership and resisting civilians, who are labelled “Nazis.” Initially framed to convince Ukrainians to collaborate with Russia’s forces, these propaganda efforts refocused on the domestic Russian scene. With the initial operational plan collapsing, the Kremlin sought to consolidate inner societal cohesion and ensure (by all means) public adhesion to the “special operation,” increasingly perceived as Putin’s personal war.

Abandoning the remnant of any “rational” discourse, Russia’s war-time propaganda gradually morphed into a mix of nuclear and Christian Orthodox eschatology combining nuclear threats with messianic tropes, as Dima Adamsky powerfully illustrated. Some political and religious Russian actors reframed the “special military operation” as a clash of civilizations and a holy war against “the forces of decadence” for the sake of which all means are justified. Patriarch Kirill has increasingly promoted a discourse sacralizing violence and presenting the suffering of Ukrainian civilians as a necessary evil to bring about Russia’s salvation. After the Russian army opted, in the fall of 2022, for a war of attrition and a strategy of total destruction, the Ukrainian enemy has been not only denigrated, but demonized. From then on, some propagandists associated “the West” with the Antichrist, describing Western civilization as “the vanguard of Satanism” and calling for the “de-Satanization” of Ukraine.

Besides demonizing Ukrainians, Russian official discourses have systematically reversed the guilt, blaming the Ukrainians and their leadership for the war, its violence, and its casualties. Ukrainians are regularly accused of inventing or staging war crimes, or of cynically causing casualties among civilians by refusing, for example, to open humanitarian corridors. Maria Zakharova, the Russian MFA’s spokesperson claimed, for instance, that Bucha’s massacre and mass graves were staged. A meticulous investigation of the massacre proved the involvement of the Russian army’s 234th Air Assault Regiment and its commander’s complicity. Furthermore, Russian leadership remains silent on the question of war-time sexual crimes in Ukraine in line with a long Soviet, then Russian, tradition of omertà on the mass rapes committed by the Red army during liberation in 1945 and, in the post-Soviet era, by the Russian army in Chechnya.

On television platforms, war crimes denial goes hand in hand with a call for death and sacrifice and an open justification of violence that often resorts to an annihilation rhetoric. These defiant statements on television mark a deliberate shift in Russian information warfare strategy. Examples abound: a Kremlin spin doctor published a long op-ed on the state-owned news agency Ria Novosti’s website to explain that the “denazification of Ukraine” necessitates the eradication of its European inclinations, as well as a “total cleansing” of “the Nazi mass of population,” which had to be “subjugated” for at least one generation. A journalist from the state-controlled channel Russia Today incited the Russian military to commit more abuses, going so far as to suggest “burning or drowning Ukrainian children.” Since October 2022, during prime time, famous talk show hosts and guests have bluntly advocated for the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including energy infrastructure, casting them as legitimate “retaliatory strikes” designed to punish Ukrainian “terrorist” activity and disrupt the transfer of arms to Ukraine.

We can hypothesize that the unleashing of violence on the battlefield was facilitated by a feeling of omnipotence and total permissiveness (vsedozvolennost’) that informational warfare ante bellum and in bello cultivated.

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 Fiascos

Ante 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 and wagnerovsty 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”(GulaguNet!) reports 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 and wagnerovsty 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.”
One of the origins of violence in this war is the violence exerted by the Kremlin against its own soldiers, who were sent to their deaths without any logistical or mental preparation.
Western intelligence services estimate Russian casualties at least at 60,000 dead; all in all, some 200,000 Russians may have been killed or wounded in the first year of the war. As a Ukrainian psychologist recently noted, “the level of brutality of the Russian military is very high” because “they have to deflect their helplessness and despair onto something living, weak, to see how that something suffers. They hate themselves and project that hate onto their victims. They banish from themselves the thought of their humiliation, their fear and their helplessness.”

Conclusion: The Trap of Compromise

Russian war violence in Ukraine can only be explained, both in scale and in degree of brutality, by crossing two analytical axes: the political intentionality from above and the inevitability of violence from below. The strikes against civilian infrastructure ordered by Russia’s military high command and the crimes committed against civilians by simple soldiers followed different logics and timelines in the theater of operations. Together, though, they aggregated into a cohesive complex of war instruments designed to subjugate Ukraine through punishment and humiliation.
These two trajectories of war violence — intentional and unavoidable, from above and from below — fed into each other on the ground in Ukraine, unleashing a swift and irreversible brutalization of the conflict.
Ultimately, this multifaceted violence — psychological, informational, military, and economic—stems from a common matrix of state violence inherited from the Bolshevik revolution, Stalinist repressions, and the political violence of the Brezhnev era. Dehumanizing the enemy, denigrating human life, neglecting the fate of ordinary people, and perversely glorifying violence in the name of superior ideals, are yet again the foundations of Russian leadership. The absence of lustration and repentance for the crimes of communism, including for the orchestrated famine of the Holodomor, cultivates a “chain of impunity” that endlessly repeats itself. Lenin’s mummified body is not about to leave his mausoleum on Red Square. Stalin’s figure is rehabilitated instead of haunting consciences.

In a vision obscured by hubris, the Russian president has sought to forcefully unite what he believes to be his people. In doing so, he has inflicted on Ukrainian society a tremendous trauma with demographically, economically, and psychologically devastating effects in the long term. He has also taken Russian citizens hostage, isolating them from the rest of the world and irretrievably compromising them. Abysmal is the moral collapse for Russian society. The specter of major repressions reappears. Russian civil society’s “undesirable organizations” are muzzled and “liquidated,” political opponents are imprisoned and humiliated, and “foreign agents” are intimidated and vilified. But voices of conscience still rise, such as the voice of a Russian officer who refused to return to Ukraine and murder innocent people. At his trial, this young man, who had become an orphan at an early age, recalled the model of kindness that his late father represented for him and declared: “my soul is in my own hands.”


This article is dedicated to Victor Fainberg (1931–2023) who was interned in a Soviet psychiatric prison for 5 and a half years for daring to protest Moscow's occupation of Czechoslovakia and to Vladimir Kara-Murza who has been sentenced to 25 years of harsh penal colony in Russia for denouncing the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.
  • Sarah Fainberg
    Dr. Sarah Fainberg serves as Senior Researcher and Head of the Great Powers in the Middle East Research Program at Tel Aviv University’s Elrom Center for Air and Space Studies, where she focuses on Russia and the Eurasian space. She is also a Lecturer in the MA Program for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Previously, she served as Policy and Strategic Issues Advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Defense and a Researcher on Russia at the National Institute for Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. She has just published with Lieutenant-Colonel (res.) Daniel Rakov a comprehensive research report, The Growing Impact of the Civilian Population on the Modern Battlefield: A Glimpse into the Russia-Ukraine War.
  • Céline Marangé
    Dr. Céline Marangé serves as Senior Researcher on Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM). She is also a permanent consultant for the policy-planning staff (CAPS) of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and a member of the citizen reserve of the French Air and Space Force. Her research interests include foreign and defense policy, Russian influence and deterrence, and European and Eurasian security. Among her recent publications are a Chatham House report on “French and German Approaches to Russia” (with Susan Stewart) and an edited issue on the role of religion in Russian foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone.

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