Bucha was not an isolated incident – the brutal pillar of Russian military strategy

More than 400 people are said to have been murdered in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Some victims show signs of torture or rape. What the Russian military is doing in Ukraine is part of a perfidious strategy. A military strategy that other countries are watching closely – and copying.

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on April 16, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

Men who just wanted to buy bread. A family with three children who had sought shelter in the basement. Women hiding in their homes. Now they are all dead. Russian soldiers are said to have murdered them in cold blood in Bucha. The mayor of the town northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv spoke of a total of 403 deaths. Some of the victims show signs of torture. Several women were raped.

After the Russian soldiers withdrew from Bucha, the corpses testify to a shocking sequence of violent acts during the occupation of the city. Human rights organizations and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague are now investigating whether war crimes have been committed.

Bucha was not an isolated incident, not an isolated orgy of violence as wars often bring about. The events in the Kyiv suburb are part of a system. Since the offensive began on February 24, Russian troops have attacked civilian targets in Ukraine: the Mariupol maternity hospital as well as against people trying to flee the embattled city on the Azov Sea.

Russian rockets destroyed schools, kindergartens, residential buildings and churches in Kyiv, Kharkov and Chernihiv. The Russian army has only hit “military bases”, the Kremlin claims – all other claims are “fake news from the Ukrainian Nazis and their accomplices in the West”.

There is, however, a method in the ruthless crackdown on the civilian population. This form of terror has been a mainstay of the Putin regime’s military strategy for nearly a decade. It was already being used in Chechnya and not least in Syria after Russia intervened in 2015.

These war crimes are well documented. For example, intercepted radio traffic from Russian pilots showed that they specifically bombed hospitals, markets and people queuing for bread in front of bakeries. Russia also helped to encircle cities like Aleppo and starve their residents.

On the ground, mercenaries from the Wagner group continued the terror as part of their first major foreign operation. They tortured and executed at will. Officially, the group is not subordinate to the army leadership and thus has a free hand. According to findings of the German Federal Intelligence Service, Wagner mercenaries were also stationed in Bucha, which makes the scale of the crimes more plausible.

Russia kept dictator Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria at a time he was on the brink of defeat in the civil war. The war against civilians thus proved to be a “successful model” that cemented Russia’s claim to regional leadership. And success breeds imitators.

Turkey, which has grand Ottoman ambitions, copied the Russian model. Ankara built up a mercenary army of mostly radical Islamist rebel militias in Syria. With their help, Turkey conducted three illegal invasions into northern Syria. These Syrian mercenaries “committed serious misdemeanors and war crimes,” Amnesty International wrote after the last offensive in 2019. These included summary shootings, attacks on residential areas, bakeries and schools.

The pattern is the same: war crimes as a tool in a hegemonic foreign policy that Ankara, like the Kremlin, used in several regions of the world. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote in an essay published during the pandemic: Russia and Turkey are the dominant states in international politics because they are willing to use force to defend their interests.

The question is, however, how much longer will this be the case? The war in Ukraine raises serious doubts about the strength of Russia, the second largest military power in the world. So far, the Kremlin has not been able to achieve any of its intended goals. The large-scale military campaign threatens to end in a fiasco. And what about Turkey? It takes a moderate stance and tries to mediate between Russia and Europe.

Because after the war in Ukraine, nothing will be the same. The United States and Europe may no longer be as passive in accepting war crimes and violations of international law as they have done up to now. At least that is what the strong political and military support for the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggests.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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