Over a year and a half has passed since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine, violating international law as enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The core intention of the Charter remains the same today as when it was ratified: the prevention of a third world war and, secondarily, the institutional scaffolding needed to address the underlying causes of war, including systemic poverty, insecurity, and, most interestingly, grudges.
One need not be an expert on international law to understand how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March of 2022 has violated the laws’ core principles. The Kremlin’s pretexts, the alleged violation of Russia’s “sphere of influence,” cited by, for example, international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, remain inadequate to justify the invasion of an internationally recognized sovereign state. On top of that, in its prosecution of an illegitimate war, Russia continues to practice war crimes—systematically and deliberately attacking noncombatants, including medical personnel and facilities. We may continue to debate whether allowing Russia to reclaim the USSR’s sphere of influence is acceptable as a tradeoff to prevent a global conflict. Still, there can be no question that Russia’s continual rape, torture, and murder of noncombatants is illegal and damages Russia’s reputation on the world stage.
The question, then, is, what explains Russia’s behavior?
From Tsar to Commissar
During the entire rule of Russia’s Tsars—from the very founding of the Russian state until 1917, Russia’s military was no more or no less brutal toward noncombatants than the militaries of any other state or empire. But the Russian Revolution and the horrific civil war that followed changed everything. In place of an aristocratic code of honor, Russia’s surviving officer corps were loyal to the person of Josef Stalin (although in 1938, he had three-quarters of them above the rank of lieutenant executed for treason) and, more broadly, to the international communist movement, which they believed was destined to liberate the world from its capitalist and imperialist chains. There is little difference between this messianic vision and the twelfth-century crusaders or Protestant and Catholic militaries of the Thirty Years War. The same is true of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1972–75 or Iran’s theocracy after 1979. All militaries representing such a “messianic” or “revolutionary” ethos were deeply implicated in the mass killing of noncombatants.
Operation Barbarossa, Stalingrad, and Berlin
The logic of the revolutionary’s lack of restraint on the use of armed force is twofold. First, this ideology insists on the dehumanization of opponents: “Our enemies are not actually people. They cannot be bargained with, and will themselves acknowledge no limits in their use of violence against us.” Second, his ideology is self-justifying: “What conduct wouldn’t be justified in the pursuit of an earthly paradise, in which poverty and war are banished?’
Until 1941, Russia’s formative military experience had been its civil war (1917–1923), which displayed, to a terrible degree, both aspects of ideological warfare and their impact on civilians. As Vladimir Lenin famously insisted: “It is with absolute frankness that we speak of this struggle of the proletariat; each man must choose between joining our side or the other side.” But on June 22, 1941, 3.8 million German soldiers crossed the Soviet border in Operation Barbarossa, which by December would strike within a few kilometers of Moscow and result in the loss of 4.5 million Soviet soldiers killed or captured.
In the late Summer of 1942, the Third Reich’s Sixth Army reached Stalingrad. By November 22, the Germans found themselves encircled by the Red Army, and on February 2, they surrendered. The fighting in that storied city on the Volga River remains among history’s most brutal. Given both sides’ commitment to zero-sum, totalizing visions of warfare, the campaign systematically repudiated the very idea of “noncombatant.”
Revolutionary logic was a core component of Soviet practice as their armed forces advanced toward Berlin. Any Soviet soldiers refusing a suicidal attack or attempting a retreat, even for sound military reasons, were executed by special forces dedicated to that purpose. Soviet leaders did not acknowledge Soviet prisoners of war. Any soldier captured by the enemy must have been a counterrevolutionary, as evidenced by the fact that they still drew breath. There were no Soviet “civilians” in formerly-occupied territories either: any who were not active partisans were labeled “Nazi collaborators” and left to starve or die of exposure as Red Army advanced toward Germany.
In practice, Soviet soldiers—particularly junior officers—often took pity on civilian survivors of Nazi occupation, even at the very real risk to their own lives. But upon reaching German territory, any pretense of the existence of “noncombatants” vanished. As historian Norman Naimark argues, while in a few formal documents the Red Army was ordered to respect noncombatant immunity, on the ground, Soviet armed forces understood they were in Germany to avenge the rapes, forced starvation, and murders their own citizens had suffered since the German invasion. Retreating German or German-allied soldiers understood that surrender was not an option. At best, a surrendering soldier could expect a stint of lethal hard labor in Siberia (of the 91,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army taken into captivity by the Soviets at Stalingrad, only 5,000 would survive to return to Germany). And the most savage harm of all would fall on German women and girls: victorious Soviet soldiers raped girls as young as nine and women as old as seventy during their occupation of Berlin. According to one female contemporary of the Soviet occupation, rape was so universal that Berlin’s women lost even their shame at having been victims.
Soviet to Russian Military Doctrine: Doctrinal Inertia
It should now be much easier to understand the persistence of targeting noncombatants in Russian military culture. Indeed, the USSR’s last armed conflict—its ten-year effort to keep Afghanistan communist (1979–1989)—only further embedded this principle into Russian military thinking and doctrine. We could call this “doctrinal inertia.”
Today, Russia’s military, in practice, ignores noncombatant immunity and systematically and deliberately targets medical facilities in areas of operations—a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions of 1948 and 1949, to which Russia remains a signatory. In international law, the Additional Protocols of 1977—which were intended to protect national liberation movements from brutality of the sort for which Russia is now famous—did nothing to protect Chechen nationalists when they sought the independence to which they were entitled by law after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
In Syria after 2015, Syrian and Russian armed forces made no distinction between civilians and insurgents in areas of operations (sadly, this is hardly unique to Syria or the Russian Federation). But what is perhaps unique, again, is the deliberate targeting of medical personnel and facilities, the persistent use of starvation as a weapon, and systematic and intentional attacks on civilian infrastructure during combat operations.
All of this matters as much for Russia’s security as it does for the world because Russia’s barbarism remains profoundly counterproductive. Fans of “taking the gloves off” in combat often forget that winning and losing are not just objective outcomes but are, to some extent, determined via social construction by audiences. So, in a boxing match where one fighter overcomes an adversary with an illegal move, a “win” could only happen if the cheating contender killed the entire audience. Since no one in history has managed that—not the Nazis, not Milosevic’s Serbs, not Rwanda’s Interahamwe—survivors will carry the grudges that, like the dragon’s teeth in Greek mythology, sooner or later sprout into visceral counter-violence.
An Inconvenient Truth: It’s Not Just Russia
We are likely to see more, rather than less, military barbarism in the future—not only from Russia, North Korea, Iran, and the PRC but also from the United States and its democratic allies. This is for two reasons.
First, the world is becoming more urban, and urban environments complicate infantry tactics. Rather than ask soldiers to risk their lives breaching a building, scanning for and potentially engaging hostile troops, commanders yield to the temptation to back away and call in artillery or air support, then sort through the rubble later. Given the traditional proximity of “hostiles” to “civilians” in urban settings, this necessarily means more “collateral damage,” which then evolves into the systematic injury of civilians.
Second, in the global north, our increasing interactions in cyberspace—including social media algorithms that trade rage for profit—have accelerated a trend toward political polarization—not just in the United States but everywhere. Democracy is, as the British might say, “on the back foot.” That means we’re likely to see more, not fewer, authoritarian states in the near future. To gain and maintain power, authoritarian leaders both require and remain gifted at “othering,” identifying a category of human beings—foreigners, counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the people, LGBTQ+, immigrants, religious minorities, artists, intellectuals, people of color, even women—as subhumans who become the targets of deliberate harm ending in what is known as “cleansing.”
It’s clear that all militaries—especially in the prolonged conflicts that have become the norm—suffer from the dilemmas of conducting combat operations without harming noncombatants. But for the Russian Federation, whether in Syria or Ukraine (or in cyberspace), respect for noncombatant immunity in war or military occupation isn’t a dilemma; it died in the October Revolution of 1917.