The recent evidence of atrocities in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel and the brutal strike on thousands of civilian evacuees at the Kramatorsk railway station reinforce a sad reality: Human lives are nothing to Putin and the Russian army. Russian invaders will stop at nothing to exert force on occupied Ukrainian land by humiliating and killing civilians.
They level Ukrainian cities to the ground with indiscriminate bombing, causing tragedies such as Mariupol (almost 100% destroyed), Chernihiv (70% destroyed), and Izium (80% destroyed). They are ready to use banned weapons – possibly including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons – to achieve their goals. Human lives are worthless to the Russian aggressors, even the lives of their own soldiers. This attitude is rooted in a barbarian mentality, but it can also be strategic.
Putin does not need Ukrainians on the land he seizes. He wants Ukrainian land, with its strategic position as a potential springboard to threaten NATO countries and control the Black Sea, not land with Ukrainians.
First, Ukrainians – even civilians – have shown strong opposition to Russian forces in areas captured by Russians. They go to rallies. They refuse and even burn humanitarian aid offered by Russian soldiers. They transmit information to the Ukrainian military. They fight. There is nothing close to welcoming behavior that Russian media can show on their propagandistic channels. From Putin’s standpoint – however terrible this may sound – it may thus be preferable for Ukrainian civilians to be dead rather than alive. At most, in areas occupied by Russian soldiers, Ukrainians can be forcibly moved to Russia to serve as bargaining chips in negotiations or prisoner exchanges. Men can also become forced conscripts for Russia. Nothing more.
Second, it is now very clear that Russian forces won’t be able to maintain control of seized territories if the war ends in Russia’s favor. Historically, Russia was relocating Russians to the Ukrainian East, Crimea, and large cities to russify Ukraine. At the same time, it was deporting Ukrainians to the Russian East and North. This won’t work this time. The war has shown the unity of the Ukrainian people and their willpower. Any attempt to relocate Russians to Ukraine will be met with resistance. The ties between Ukrainians and Russians are now broken. In this case, why would Putin be interested in preserving the lives of any civilians on the land he targets? He isn’t. Unblinkingly, his army destroys schools, hospitals, museums and churches. It destroys Ukrainian heritage and cultural sites protected by UNESCO. Putin spares no weapons – or war crimes – to achieve his goals. If anything, his takeaway from Bucha might be to ramp up the genocide until there is no one left to tell the stories. Just imagine how all evidence of looting, rape by Russian soldiers, and other crimes could “conveniently” disappear when cities are bombed to the ground and victimes burned to ashes.
The threat of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons also remains real – and completely independent of any “escalation” by NATO. You may wonder if Putin has the guts to use these weapons while Russian soldiers are still on Ukrainian land. The answer is, “He will, if it is the easiest way to achieve his objective.” We’ve already seen how Russian soldiers are treated by their generals and how comfortable Russia is sending even military college students to the battlefield. Collateral damage in the form of deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers will not stop Putin from using weapons of mass destruction on Ukraine. In fact, Russians have already used weapons banned or curtailed in the world, including phosphorus bombs.
In this war of sheer destruction, why would Putin want potentially uninhabitable land? The answer is simple: Territories in the East of Ukraine bordering Russia can be mined for resources and turned into military bases. These bases can threaten NATO, launch “special military operations” against other countries in the region, and continue to maintain Putin’s leverage of grandstanding threats. By now, it should be clear to Putin that Ukraine is too big and too “prickly” to swallow. His second-best plan may be to try to swallow parts of it. If Putin achieves his goals at least partially, he can create a buffer zone in the East of Ukraine that would be a cause of unrest for many decades to come. And not only Ukraine but also other countries will pay the price.
These eventualities are becoming increasingly clear. First there was Mariupol. Then there was Bucha. Now there is Kramatorsk. By many accounts, what is happening in Eastern parts of Ukraine under Russian siege is likely even worse. Putin’s goals and willingness to commit all possible atrocities to achieve these goals are evident to all. Where is the red line he has to cross for Europe, the United States, and NATO to finally say “enough”?
Does the red line have to come into view before we act? The democratic world can avert the genocide of Ukrainians by supplying Ukraine with the necessary heavy weapons and imposing the types of sanctions that actually matter, such as a full European embargo on Russian energy. This is needed now, not months or years from now—while there are still Ukrainians left to fight for us all on Ukrainian land.
Authors: Tetyana Balyuk (Emory University), Anastassia Fedyk (UC Berkeley), Tania Babina (Columbia University), Yuriy Gorodnichenko (UC Berkeley), James Hodson (AI for Good Foundation), Ilona Sologoub (VoxUkraine)
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations