Putin’s Gruesome Playbook

Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine looks startlingly familiar.

di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
Janine di Giovanni
By , an FP global affairs columnist.
A woman walks past a Russian tank on a muddy street with houses and people in the background.
A woman walks past a Russian tank on a muddy street with houses and people in the background.
A Chechen woman passes by a tank of Russian federal troops on the main street of Gehy-Chu village, south from Grozny, Chechnya, on Feb. 16, 2000. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

All wars have a different stamp when it comes to atrocities.

The crimes of the 1970-1975 Cambodian war were different from the concentration camps in northwest Bosnia in 1992. The crimes of the 1983-2009 Sri Lankan Civil War were different from those in Sierra Leone in 1999. There, random civilians were chosen and amputated at the wrist or the elbow: the intent to leave their victims as human monuments of terror.

But although the origins of the wars are different, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless, indiscriminate bombing—a standard part of his playbook—in Ukraine has startling parallels to other Putin wars I have witnessed in my time as a reporter.

All wars have a different stamp when it comes to atrocities.

The crimes of the 1970-1975 Cambodian war were different from the concentration camps in northwest Bosnia in 1992. The crimes of the 1983-2009 Sri Lankan Civil War were different from those in Sierra Leone in 1999. There, random civilians were chosen and amputated at the wrist or the elbow: the intent to leave their victims as human monuments of terror.

But although the origins of the wars are different, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless, indiscriminate bombing—a standard part of his playbook—in Ukraine has startling parallels to other Putin wars I have witnessed in my time as a reporter.

When I go through my old reporting notebooks from past conflicts, I find the same war crimes documented there that we’re now seeing in Ukraine. Most notably in Grozny, Chechnya, from 1999-2000, during the brutal Second Chechen War when Putin was cutting his teeth on power; and with the destruction of Aleppo in Syria.

Many of the casualties in Ukraine are caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems and airstrikes. Chechnya had a similar fate with artillery, helicopter gunships, and airstrikes; Aleppo was destroyed by Putin’s screeching war planes.

In all cases, Putin and his generals (he has just tasked the “Butcher of Syria,” Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov, to be his ground commander in Ukraine) employed indiscriminate use of air power, leading to civilian casualties. Both times, they targeted heavily residential civilian areas with hospitals and schools, forcing civilians to flee from danger. He has created columns of refugees and destroyed the fabric of society.

The people I have seen killed or injured in Putin’s wars weren’t on the battlefield. The ones I remember the clearest were children with missing limbs or shrapnel embedded in their brains, women carrying toddlers, confused older adults, and people with disabilities—people who did not deserve to be targeted and were supposed to be protected under international human rights law.

Putin has aided the most ruthless of dictators, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who waged a war against his own people and punished them for seeking freedom. Assad chemically gassed his citizens, imprisoned children, tortured thousands of people, starved entire cities by imposing sieges, and sent millions of refugees outside of their country. And he did it all with Putin’s—and the Russian military’s—support.

Putin helped by sending Russian warplanes to systematically target hospitals and first responders known as the White Helmets. During the siege of Aleppo in 2016, more than 440 civilians died, including 90 children. The attacks killed newborn babies, doctors, and students.

These were clear-cut war crimes. According to Human Rights Watch, Russian and Syrian “airstrikes often appeared to be recklessly indiscriminate, deliberately targeted at least one medical facility, and included the use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and incendiary weapons.” The Russian bombers then moved to Idlib, Syria, where they targeted more civilian facilities, including maternity hospitals.

For me, Syria was a time when I recorded some of the most gruesome atrocities of my long career. Hospital bombings were perhaps the most disturbing—I remember one angry Syrian doctor in tears of rage about how the world could sit by so silently. I remember days spent with the most courageous health care workers who were scrambling to save lives in a triage hospital with scant supplies. I remember the anguished messages from a friend and doctor in Idlib, whom I’ll refer to as Dr. Omar for his safety, who operated on children for years in a basement with a flashlight. I remember taking testimonies from victims of torture where the methods were so barbaric, I had to check with doctors to make sure the victims could live through such abuse. Syria was a painful war.

Seeing what’s happening in Ukraine also takes me back to another dangerous and cruel war. In January 2000, I was in Chechnya when Grozny, its capital, fell to Russian forces, some of them blissed out on vodka and the sedative Dimedrol. I will never forget the wasted landscape, of coming across a house for the blind, where 30 residents sat stunned in the rubble of what had once been their home. It was freezing cold and their roof was blasted away.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked them, as they sat with their white canes.

“For somebody to come save us,” one answered.

Ironically, many of them were ethnic Russians, including one who told me: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for good things to happen.” He explained he was sightless from a car crash when he was 28. “I guess now they won’t.”

A week or so later, I saw Putin’s screeching missiles strike a small village where I was sheltering with some old women in a potato cellar. I saw the backpacks of school children covered in blood in the snow.

In Grozny, that forgotten city Putin smashed like a toy, I wrote that even the doctors “scream and scream” on street corners. I remember after one brutal aerial bombardment, one woman who “came out of the cellar 10 days ago. … She is covered with dirt and grime, her face hidden behind weeks of unwashed soot. … ‘I’m an educated person, I hate going around like this, but I have descended into the condition of a monkey.’”

Now, Putin has shifted to Ukraine and is using the very same playbook I personally saw him use to catastrophic effect in Syria and Chechnya. (The Kremlin, meanwhile, denies war crimes and says Russian military forces are not targeting civilians.)

I watch Ukraine knowing full well what Putin is doing. His campaign of terror is meant to wear down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s resolve to resist. It is meant to dehumanize. Putin believes he can break Ukraine’s spirit even as he breaks its citizens’ bones.

It is also emptying the country. War dismantles countries by forcing the inhabitants to flee. This is called ethnic cleansing. Putin has forced more than 12 million Ukrainians from their homes, according to the United Nations. Over 5 million people have fled to neighboring countries, and an estimated 7.1 million people are displaced within Ukraine. Millions of refugees similarly fled Syria to neighboring countries. During the first year of the Second Chechen War alone, more than half a million people were displaced.

It is hard to comprehend the level of human insecurity until you stand in the middle of a corridor of desperate people fleeing with the only things they could grab: passports, children, a suitcase full of clothes. I learned long ago that no one ever wants to leave their home, so they usually wait until the last possible moment. By then it’s too late to do much more than run.

 In the winter of 2013-2014, I worked with refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq for the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. The thousands of people I met were desperate with grief and the knowledge that they would probably never see the land of their birth again—nor would their children. The sense of displacement and alienation—not to mention the lack of dignity and the trauma—was unfathomable.

Putin’s killing machine will continue. Much of it won’t be known for months, perhaps years, to come. There will be more mass graves, more bombings. He will continue to violate humanitarian law with impunity.

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana once wrote. But in the case of Putin, the playbook of horror will continue until he is finally stopped.

Janine di Giovanni is an FP global affairs columnist and director of a U.S. aid-sponsored project recording war crimes in Ukraine called Enabling Witnesses. Her latest book, The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, is about Christians in the Middle East. Twitter: @janinedigi

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