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Russia is targeting civilians in Ukraine

Benjamin Restle
December 4, 2022

Russia continues to attack energy infrastructure in Ukraine, causing homes to lose power, heat and water. The strategy is to demoralize the people with a long winter ahead. It's a cynical tactic with a long history.

An elderly woman in Kyiv holds a candle after Russian attacks caused a blackout
An elderly woman in Kyiv holds a candle after Russian attacks caused a blackoutImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/picture alliance

Russia began focused attacks on Ukraine's electrical infrastructure on October 9, following an explosion on the Crimean Bridge, which links the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula with mainland Russia.

Initially, Russia said attacks on Ukraine's electricity infrastructure were retaliation for the bridge explosion. It has continued justifying the strikes militarily, denying they are aimed at the civilian population. The Kremlin, however, also said Kyiv could "end the suffering among the population" if it meets Russia's demands to end the war. The campaign has left millions of Ukrainians without light, water, or heat as temperatures fall below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

Andras Racz, an expert on Russian security policy with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), said the continued bombing of Ukraine's high-voltage network, transformers, and power lines that connect the country to the European Union's electricity network was likely planned "for months, if not years." This suggests that the campaign and its timing were devised with a specific goal in mind. Indeed, Racz believes it is designed to "inflict such a level of suffering to the civilian population, which would coerce the Ukrainian government into negotiations."

People wait in line to collect water from a well, in Kyiv, Ukraine, November 24, 2022
Kyiv residents are forced to collect water from a public well after Russia's strikesImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/picture alliance

'Good supposedly achieved'

Russia's targeting of civilian infrastructure has dire consequences for ordinary Ukrainians. It also contravenes what is known as the principle of "jus in bello," which aims to constrain the conduct of war. It hinges on two tenets: distinguishing "between civilians and military combatants," and maintaining a sense of proportionality, meaning "the harm done should not be disproportionate to the good supposedly achieved," as Harvard University's Charles S. Maier writes.

By attacking Ukraine's energy infrastructure, Russia is blurring the line between civilian and military targets. The purpose of this, organizations like Amnesty International say, is to erode ordinary Ukrainians' will to resist. "The morale of the civilian population is not a lawful target and carrying out these attacks with the sole purpose of terrorizing civilians is a war crime," according to Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In light of these and other strikes, the European Parliament in November voted to designate Russia a "state sponsor" of terrorism. In a press release, the legislative body said Russian conduct amounts to "acts of terror and constitutes war crimes." The label is largely symbolic, however, as the European Union lacks the means to enforce this designation.

A Chechen carries the remains of a bed through Grozny in March 2000
After the Second Chechen War, the UN declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earthImage: Stringer/picture-alliance

Russia previously deployed this tactic when it intervened in Syria in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, attacking nonmilitary targets such as hospitals in Aleppo in 2015 and 2016. It also launched attacks against civilians in the First and Second Chechen Wars during the 1990s. The Chechen capital Grozny suffered tremendous damage, with thousands of civilians killed. "So, one could say that attacking civilian infrastructure can be considered as an integral part of Russia's way of warfare," says the DGAP's Racz.

Targeting civilians has long history

Attacks on nonmilitary targets for the purpose of demoralizing civilian populations, however, are not a tactic unique to Russia. It was, for example, also deployed by Nazi Germany and also Britain during World War II.

When Nazi Germany started World War II in September 1939, it first sent bomber planes to the militarily and logistically insignificant town of Wielun in Poland. Scores of civilians were killed, and countless residential buildings were destroyed. Carpet bombings of major cities such as Warsaw and Rotterdam followed. The purpose of these air raids was also to shock and awe civilian populations, says history professor Ulrich Herbert of Freiburg University. It was thought, he says, this would weaken or break their resistance.

On September 1, 1939, people remove rubble from houses bombed in Wielun, Poland
Destroyed houses in Wielun, Poland, after German carpet-bombing in September 1939Image: picture-alliance/AP

By 1940, Nazi Germany began bombing British population centers. Targets included British towns and cities of little to no military importance such as Exeter, Canterbury, and York. Nazi Germany aimed to break the will of the British people by striking civilian and cultural targets. "But with regard to London and other British cities, this backfired," says Herbert, adding that German bombing boosted British morale and resilience but also stoked bitterness.

That same year, Britain began launching its first large-scale area raids on German cities. Alex J. Bellamy of Australia's University of Queensland writes that "a combination of bombing inaccuracy, poor weather, high casualty rates, and strategic preferences persuaded the RAF [British Royal Air Force] to adopt area bombing."

This, he said, was  "aimed at 'dehousing' workers and demoralizing enemy populations," and thereby disrupting industrial production. The impact of this carpet bombing on German morale, Herbert said, was ambivalent. "There was bitterness, anger towards the Allies, hatred towards the many bombers," according to the historian. As the raids continued, German disillusionment with the Nazi regime grew, he says, along with a sense of apathy and a focus on mere survival.

The view from Dresen city hall onto the city center
Devoid of major military targets, Dresden was hit by UK and US bombing in 1945Image: akg-images/picture-alliance


"Military history doesn't know too many examples where such tactics [of demoralizing civilian populations] would have been successful, particularly not in the short run," says Racz.

What does seem to play a role, however, in determining the psychological impact of such callous attacks is whether or not a war is "perceived as just or unjust," says Herbert. Unprovoked attacks on civilian populations by outside aggressors, the historian says, are more likely to cause dogged resistance than anything else. Media reports suggest this is what is happening in Ukraine right now, as ordinary people grit their teeth, determined to win the war despite growing hardship.

Edited by Richard Connor