Op-Ed: Faring poorly in Ukraine, Putin has little to lose by committing war crimes

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard by a destroyed building.
Russian shelling has destroyed many buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
(Andrew Marienko / Associated Press)

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last month and the deliberate targeting of civilians by Russia’s military forces flagrantly violate both the laws of war that regulate a state’s right to engage in war and the use of armed force as well as the rules that regulate the conduct of military forces once they are engaged in armed conflict.

Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories of the 1949 Geneva Conventions that set forth these principles. In the wake of the cataclysmic destruction of over 50 million civilians during World War II, the Geneva Conventions codified nearly a century of work on how to protect civilians, caregivers and the wounded during times of armed conflict. The convention, extended with three amendment protocols, has kept pace with armed conflict across the latter half of the 20th century.

Among the protocols, “Protection of the Civilian Population” describes types of indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the treaty, including “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” It further states “The civilian population ... shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.”


Russian forces in Ukraine have violated these laws by directly targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, apartment buildings, shopping centers and schools — and the U.S. State Department said Wednesday that Russian attacks in Ukraine have amounted to war crimes.

The Kremlin is employing siege tactics in population centers aimed at starving civilians into surrendering, taking them hostage or forcing them to expose themselves to risk as refugees. Cluster munitions and thermobaric “vacuum bombs” are being employed against civilian targets in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. And Putin could take his violations of the laws of war to an even deadlier level should he employ chemical weapons as he did in Syria. Worse yet, some experts warn Putin may be tempted to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon in a desperate effort to force a settlement more favorable for Russia.

And with Russia’s continued inability to advance on the ground in Ukraine, things are likely to get worse in its killing of noncombatants. Russian forces will increasingly target civilians and engage in war crimes under international law because its forces in Ukraine are too weak, poorly led and demoralized to effectively engage lawful military targets in a manner consistent with the laws of armed conflict. Instead, Putin’s field commanders are likely to compensate for their military failings with wanton and indiscriminate use of long-range artillery, rockets and aerial bombardment.

And, unlike a conflict involving potential insurgencies, where cooperation from the local population is critical and there are strong incentives to avoid harming civilians, there are no hearts and minds possible for Putin to win in Ukraine and less perceived tactical costs to killing civilians.

Consider how Ukraine’s valiant military, territorial defense forces and other resistance elements are refusing to cede cities and urban areas despite the indiscriminate artillery barrages, rocket attacks and siege tactics that the Russian invaders have resorted to in their desperate efforts to wrest control and occupy these towns.

Clearing urban areas is one of the most difficult and intensive missions that any military force can take on. It takes highly trained, disciplined and well-led soldiers at the small unit level to prevail in urban combat against an entrenched and determined foe. And even with such high-quality forces it is a slow, casualty-intensive, building-to-building, room-to-room slog. Witness the challenges American soldiers and Marines faced in nearly two months of fighting in the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in late 2004.

With Russia’s troops increasingly shown to be incapable of routing the Ukrainian forces in much of the country, especially when operating in urban areas, we can expect the Russian army to intensify its use of massive artillery barrages and the indiscriminate targeting of noncombatants similar to what it did during the second Chechen war. In late 1999, Putin ordered the total destruction of the capital, Grozny, which he ultimately achieved after nearly four months of brutal bombardment resulting in thousands of civilian deaths and the U.N. declaring it the most destroyed city on Earth.

Putin’s playbook is quite open for everyone to see. It’s not difficult to anticipate his next moves on the ground. Whether he can succeed in accomplishing his objectives in Ukraine — which are unclear at this point — in the face of determined resistance by Ukraine’s people remains to be seen.

Regardless of the outcome of this war, Putin should be held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed by his military forces acting on his orders. For 70 years, the Geneva Conventions have stood to restrain the lethality of conflicts so that the brutality of World War II would never be repeated. These norms must be safeguarded, and the international community must use the tools at its disposal to make sure that Putin is held accountable for the blood he has spilled.

Joseph Felter, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense and Army Special Forces officer, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a Hoover Institution research fellow at Stanford University.