Ukraine, terror and the lessons of history

Bodies being prepared for burial. The civilian death toll has climbed into the thousands
A hand marks the site of a mass grave. Many of these burial sites are spread around areas of conflict.

Bucha in Ukraine may be the saddest town on earth now that the Russians have departed. In their wake, they left many bodies, hundreds perhaps, people killed by the indiscriminate ravages of war or worse, Ukrainians executed by the Russians with shots to the head before they cleared out. In some cases, bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs.

These are obvious war crimes, even though there doesn’t seem to be a formal declaration of war from either side. It could be viewed as a territorial dispute, a border conflict, and lots of other descriptions that are often used to mask what is actually a war.

This one certainly has all the earmarks of war, despite the fact that the word seems to have been banned from Russian media, which presents it as a campaign against western encroachment and for the liberation of some regions of Ukraine that have Russian-speaking populations. The rationale Vladimir Putin has used is that the Russians were being roughed up, slain, tortured, whatever, by the Ukrainians.

There is no objective evidence for this as casus belli. There is also no doubt about the role the Russian army and Russian mercenaries have played in this murderous campaign. One argument is that the commanders lost control of an army angered by hunger, cold and lack of support. The more troubling one is that this behavior was ordered, that Russians soldiers have no real autonomy and only respond to orders from on high.

The photos tell the story.

In the face of this, Russian media claims they were fabricated, that their soldiers committed no crimes. But there are hundreds of the pictures, each one a package of evidence about the ruthless behaviors of Russian soldiers.

That is a problem for prosecutors and lawyers to work out when it’s all over and the toll for this Russian adventure has been taken. It all seems so brutal, so vicious, so…so…Russian, actually. The Russians have a long history of using this kind of brutality to achieve an array of political objectives. They are terror campaigns, and they have always stepped far beyond the boundaries established by the rules of warfare.

The rationale goes something like this: If you can’t win a war against an opposing force, deliver terror on the civilian population until it becomes so painful, so heart breaking, that your enemy will surrender and yield to whatever demands you present.

Terror has always been a Russian political tool.

Vladimir Lenin unleashed the first Red Terror when he was trying to consolidate Communist power in 1918, a year after the revolution. His secret police rounded up thousands of enemies of the state and dispatched them with shots to the head. The message was clear to both the “Reds” who might have opposed Lenin’s strategies and the “Whites” who were actually trying to turn back the revolution.

Among the victims were Czar Nicholas the entire Romanov family including his wife, his five children and his entourage. They were shot and bayoneted. Grenades were used to obliterate the remains, which were hauled off and buried in a forest.

Stalin’s was worse.

It was known as the Great Purge or the Great Terror. It started in 1936 and ended in 1938. A paranoid leader (With good reason, it seemed, since a variety of conspirators wanted to kill him), Stalin unleashed a campaign of midnight murders and summary executions that claimed 700,000 or more victims. His objective was to rid the party of Trotskyites and other political opponents, but the message was stronger than that. A series of “show trials” of key opponents were warnings against opposition of any kind.

The Great Terror was a nightmarish period of Soviet history so dark that it wasn’t mentioned for years after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Both cases are measures of what the Russian hierarchy can present when it feels it is threatened. Vladimir Putin knows all about terror, particularly after his own stint in the KGB, which dragged the practice of intimidation into the modern era for use against dissidents and anyone else who presented a challenge to the state.

One would think that world ended when the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989, or when Communism finally collapsed on itself a few years later.

Fifty years from now, long after Vladimir Putin is in the ground, he is likely to join Lenin and Stalin as a man who tried to use terror to achieve an objective. He forgot to factor in the resistance his armies would meet in Ukraine, so he turned his campaign on the people, a classic terror tactic.

He might never be tried or imprisoned for that.

But he may well rot in hell.

If the conflict doesn’t seem to make sense by traditional definitions of warfare, it makes abundant sense in the context of this Russian history. Terror has alway been the tool the Russians have adopted, either to frighten the nation’s population into line or to eliminate any variety of threats that have presented themselves over time.

The streets of this decimated suburb of Kiev are clogged with wrecked Russian tanks, dead Russian soldiers, and worse the bodies of countless civilians slain as the Russians were leaving the area. What possible purpose could that kind of behavior serve?

The answer to that question is apparent in Soviet, and Russian, history.

7 thoughts on “Ukraine, terror and the lessons of history

  1. Thanks, Charlie. Your insight into the culture of Russian/Soviet dictators is always welcome.

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  2. Very eloquently phrased — you absolutely nailed this — let’s also not forget the extermination of the kulaks in the name of collectivization nor the assassination of Trotsky (where have we seen that recently?).

    Thank you. Sarah

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  3. #CloseTheSkies. Because Putin already has his eye on the Balkans where only an 80 mile border with Poland gives NATO land access, or Finland which like Ukraine is not a NATO member.

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  4. Not to defend Putin or Stalin or Lenin, of course, but the czars killed a helluva lot of people, both in pogroms and for political purposes.

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  5. Thanks for providing some context to these horrific, nightmarish crimes against humanity.

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