In a photograph taken in the kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, a woman stands in the courtyard of a house, her hand covering her mouth in horror, the bodies of three dead civilians strewn before her. When Aset Chad saw this photo, she started shaking and went back 22 years in time.
In February 2000, she walked into her neighbor’s yard in Chechnya and saw the bodies of three men and a woman who had been shot multiple times in front of her 8-year-old daughter. Russian soldiers swept through their village and killed at least 60 people, raped at least six women and looted the victims’ gold teeth, human rights observers have found.
“I have the most severe flashbacks,” Chad, who now lives in New York, said in a phone interview. “I see exactly what is happening: I see the same military, the same Russian tactics that they are using, dehumanizing the people.”
The brutality of Moscow’s war against Ukraine takes two distinct forms, familiar to those who have seen the Russian military in action elsewhere.
There is the programmatic violence inflicted by Russian bombs and missiles against civilians as well as military targets, intended to demoralize as well as defeat. These attacks recall the aerial destruction in 1999 and 2000 of the Chechen capital Grozny and, in 2016, of the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
And then there is the cruelty of individual soldiers and units, with Bucha’s horrors seeming to stem directly from the massacre a generation ago in the Chadian village of Novye Aldi.
Civilian deaths and crimes committed by soldiers feature in all wars, including those waged by the United States in recent decades in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has always been difficult to explain why soldiers commit atrocities or to describe how orders from commanders, military culture, national propaganda, battlefield frustration, and individual wickedness can combine to produce such horrors.
In Russia, however, such acts are rarely investigated or even acknowledged, let alone punished. It is unclear to what extent low-level brutality stems from the intent of those responsible or whether commanders failed to control their troops. Combined with the apparent strategy of bombing civilian targets, many observers conclude that the Russian government – and, perhaps, part of Russian society – actually condones violence against civilians.
Some analysts see the problem as a structural and political problem, with the lack of accountability of the Russian armed forces being amplified by the absence of independent institutions in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian system or in the Soviet Union before him. Compared to the West, fewer people harbor illusions about individual rights that trump raw power.
“I think there is this kind of culture of violence,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher. “Either you dominate or you are dominated.”
In Ukraine, Russian soldiers apparently can continue to kill civilians with impunity, as shown by the fact that virtually none of the perpetrators of war crimes in Chechnya, where the Kremlin crushed an independence movement at the cost of dozens of thousands of civilian lives, have never been prosecuted in Russia.
At the time, Russian investigators told Chad that the Novye Aldi killings could have been carried out by Chechens disguised as Russian soldiers, she recalls. Now the Kremlin claims that all atrocities in Ukraine are either staged or perpetrated by Ukrainians and their Western “bosses”, while denouncing anyone who resists the Russian advance as “Nazi”.
Many Russians believe these lies, while those who don’t must wonder how such crimes could be perpetrated in their name.
Violence remains commonplace within the Russian army, where the most experienced soldiers regularly abuse the youngest. Despite two decades of attempts to make the army a more professional force, it has never developed a strong mid-level like the non-commissioned officers who bridge the gap between commanders and lower-ranking soldiers in the US military. In 2019, a conscript in Siberia opened fire and killed eight people at his military base, later saying he carried out the shooting because other soldiers had made his life “hell”.
Experts say the severity of hazing in the Russian military has been reduced compared to the early 2000s, when it killed dozens of conscripts each year. But they say order in many units is still maintained by informal systems similar to abusive hierarchies in Russian prisons.
For Sergei Krivenko, who heads a rights group that provides legal aid to Russian soldiers, this violence, coupled with a lack of independent oversight, makes war crimes more possible. Russian soldiers are just as capable of cruelty to fellow Russians, he says, as they are to Ukrainians.
“It is the state of the Russian army, this impunity, this aggression and this internal violence, which is expressed in these conditions,” Krivenko said in a telephone interview. “If there were to be an uprising in Voronezh” – a city in western Russia – “and the army was called in, the soldiers would behave exactly the same.”
But crimes in Ukraine may also stem from years of dehumanizing Kremlin propaganda against Ukrainians, which soldiers consume during required viewings. Russian conscripts, according to a sample schedule available on the Russian Defense Ministry website, must attend “television news programs” from 9 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. every day except Sunday. The message that they are fighting “Nazis” – as their ancestors did in World War II – is now being spread by the military, according to Russian reports.
In a video distributed by the Defense Ministry, a naval commander, Major Aleksei Shabulin, says his grandfather “hunted fascist scum through the forests” during and after World War II, referring to the Ukrainian independence fighters who at one time collaborated with Nazi Germany.
“Now I gloriously continue this tradition; now my time has come,” says Shabulin. “I will not dishonor my great-grandfather and I will go all the way.”
This propaganda also made the Russian soldiers not to expect much resistance to the invasion – after all, according to the Kremlin’s account, the Ukrainians had been subjugated by the West and awaited the release of their Russian brethren.
Krivenko, the soldiers’ rights advocate, said he spoke directly to a Russian soldier who called his group’s hotline and said that even when his unit was ordered into Ukraine from Belarus , it was not clear that the soldiers were about to go to war. area.
“The attitude of military commanders towards the army is basically like towards cattle,” Krivenko said. Putin has said only contract soldiers will fight in Ukraine, but his defense ministry was forced to admit last month that conscripts – serving the one-year term in the army required for 18-year-old Russian men at 27 – had been sent to the front, like Bien.
The Ukrainians fought back, even though Putin called them a “one nation” with the Russians in an essay published last year that the Defense Ministry made mandatory for its soldiers. Fierce resistance from a people considered part of its own helped make the Ukrainians look worse than a typical battlefield adversary, said Mark Galeotti, who studies Russian security affairs.
“The fact that ordinary Ukrainians are now taking up arms against you – there’s this feeling that they’re not just enemies, they’re traitors,” he said.
And treason, Putin said, “is the gravest crime possible.”
To some extent, Russian military violence against civilians is a feature, not a bug. In Syria, Russia has targeted hospitals to crush the last pockets of resistance to President Bashar Assad, a “brutally pragmatic approach to war” that has “its own horrible” logic, Galeotti said. It was an echo of Russia’s aerial destruction of Grozny in 1999 and 2000 and a prelude to the fierce siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol during the current invasion.
Point-blank killings of civilians and sexual violence by soldiers are a separate matter. In Bucha, civilians told the New York Times that the moods and behaviors of Russian troops grew increasingly ugly as the war progressed and the first soldiers to arrive were relatively peaceful.
“You have a group of sleep-deprived young men with guns that they think none of the rules apply to,” Galeotti said.
The violence has caused scholars to reevaluate their understanding of the Russian military. In a military operation that seemed – at least at first – aimed at winning Ukrainian allegiance to Moscow, the atrocities against civilians seem grotesquely counterproductive. Russia has already experienced this in Chechnya, where Russian violence against civilians fueled Chechen resistance.
“Every dead civilian meant a bullet in a Russian soldier,” said Kirill Shamiev, who studies Russian civil-military relations at the Central European University in Vienna. “I thought they had learned a few lessons.”
But Stanislav Gushchenko, a journalist who served as a psychologist in the Russian military in the early 2000s, said he was not surprised by reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. He recalled the daily violence in his unit and the commonplace mistreatment of Russian civilians, such as the time a group of soldiers he was traveling with on a long-distance train stole a cooked chicken that an older woman in their car had brought for food.
In a phone interview from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Gushchenko marveled at Russians now expressing shock.
“I say, ‘Guys, things were pretty much the same 20 years ago,'” he said. “You lived in your own closed world, in a kind of bubble, or as psychologists say, in a comfort zone, and you didn’t want to notice it or you really didn’t notice it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.