In a photograph from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, a woman stands in the yard of a house, her hand covering her mouth in horror, the bodies of three dead civilians scattered before her. When Aset Chad saw that picture, she started shaking and hurtled 22 years back in time.
In February 2000, she walked into her neighbor’s yard in Chechnya and glimpsed the bodies of three men and a woman who had been shot repeatedly in front of her 8-year-old daughter. Russian soldiers had swept their village and murdered at least 60 people, raped at least six women and plundered the victims’ gold teeth, human rights observers found.
“I am having the most severe flashbacks,” Chad, who now lives in New York, said in a phone interview. “I see exactly what’s going on: I see the same military, the same Russian tactics they use, dehumanizing the people.”
The brutality of Moscow’s war on Ukraine takes two distinct forms, familiar to those who have seen Russia’s military in action elsewhere.
There is the programmatic violence meted out by Russian bombs and missiles against civilians as well as military targets, meant to demoralize as much as defeat. These attacks recall the aerial destruction in 1999 and 2000 of the Chechen capital of Grozny and, in 2016, of the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
And then there is the cruelty of individual soldiers and units, the horrors of Bucha appearing to have descended directly from the slaughter a generation ago in Chad’s village, Novye Aldi.
Civilian deaths and crimes committed by soldiers figure into every war, not least those fought by the United States in recent decades in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has always been difficult to explain why soldiers commit atrocities or to describe how the orders of commanders, military culture, national propaganda, battlefield frustration and individual malice can come together to produce such horrors.
In Russia, however, such acts are rarely investigated or even acknowledged, let alone punished. That leaves it unclear how much the low-level brutality stems from the intent of those in charge or whether commanders failed to control their troops. Combined with the apparent strategy of bombing civilian targets, many observers conclude that the Russian government – and, perhaps, a part of Russian society – in reality condones violence against civilians.
Some analysts see the problem as a structural and political one, with the lack of accountability of the Russian armed forces magnified by the absence of independent institutions in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian system or the Soviet Union before it. Compared with the West, fewer people harbor any illusions of individual rights trumping raw power.
“I think there is this kind of culture of violence,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher. “Either you are dominating or you are dominated.”
In Ukraine, Russian soldiers, by all appearances, can continue to kill civilians with impunity, as underscored by the fact that virtually none of the perpetrators of war crimes in Chechnya, where the Kremlin crushed an independence movement at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives, were ever prosecuted in Russia.
Back then, Russian investigators told Chad that the killings in Novye Aldi might have been perpetrated by Chechens dressed up as Russian troops, she recalls. Now, the Kremlin says any atrocities in Ukraine are either staged or carried out by the Ukrainians and their Western “patrons,” while denouncing as a “Nazi” anyone who resists the Russian advance.
Many Russians believe those lies, while those who do not are left wrestling with how such crimes could be carried out in their name.
Violence remains commonplace within the Russian military, where more senior soldiers routinely abuse junior ones. Despite two decades of attempts at trying to make the army a more professional force, it has never developed a strong middle tier akin to the noncommissioned officers who bridge the gap between commanders and lower-ranking soldiers in the U.S. military. In 2019, a conscript in Siberia opened fire and killed eight at his military base, later asserting that he had carried out the shooting spree because other soldiers had made his life “hell.”
Experts say the severity of hazing in the Russian military has been reduced compared with the early 2000s, when it killed dozens of conscripts yearly. But they say that order in many units is still maintained through informal systems similar to the abusive hierarchies in Russian prisons.
To Sergei Krivenko, who leads a rights group that provides legal aid to Russian soldiers, that violence, coupled with a lack of independent oversight, makes war crimes more possible. Russian soldiers are just as capable of cruelty against fellow Russians, he says, as they are against Ukrainians.
“It is the state of the Russian army, this impunity, aggression and internal violence, that is expressed in these conditions,” Krivenko said in a phone interview. “If there were to be an uprising in Voronezh” – a city in western Russia – “and the army were called in, the soldiers would behave exactly the same way.”
But the crimes in Ukraine may also stem from the Kremlin’s years of dehumanizing propaganda against Ukrainians, which soldiers consume in required viewings. Russian conscripts, a sample schedule available on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website shows, must sit through “informational television programs” from 9 to 9:40 p.m. every day but Sunday. The message that they are fighting “Nazis” – as their forefathers did in World War II – is now being spread through the military, Russian news reports show.
In one video distributed by the Defense Ministry, a marine commander, Maj. Aleksei Shabulin, says his grandfather “chased fascist scum through the forests” during and after World War II, referring to Ukrainian independence fighters who at one point collaborated with Nazi Germany.
“Now I am gloriously continuing this tradition; now my time has come,” Shabulin says. “I will not disgrace my great-grandfather and will go to the end.”
That propaganda also primed Russian soldiers not to expect much resistance to the invasion – after all, the Kremlin’s narrative went, people in Ukraine had been subjugated by the West and were awaiting liberation by their Russian brethren.
Krivenko, the soldiers’ rights advocate, said he had spoken directly to a Russian soldier who called his group’s hotline and recounted that even when his unit was ordered into Ukraine from Belarus, it was not made clear that the soldiers were about to enter a war zone.
Military commanders’ “attitude to the army is, basically, like to cattle,” Krivenko said. Putin has said that only contract soldiers will fight in Ukraine, but his Defense Ministry was forced to admit last month that conscripts – serving the one-year term in the military required of Russian men 18 to 27 – had been sent to the front, as well.
Ukrainians did fight back, even though Putin called them part of “one nation” with Russians in an essay published last year that the Defense Ministry made required reading for its soldiers. The fierce resistance of a people considered to be part of one’s own contributed to the sense that Ukrainians were worse than a typical battlefield adversary, said Mark Galeotti, who studies Russian security affairs.
“The fact that ordinary Ukrainians are now taking up arms against you – there is this sense that these aren’t just enemies, these are traitors,” he said.
And treason, Putin has said, “is the gravest crime possible.”
To some extent, the Russian military’s violence against civilians is a feature, not a bug. In Syria, Russia targeted hospitals to crush the last pockets of resistance to President Bashar Assad, a “brutally pragmatic approach to warfare” that has “its own, ghastly” logic, Galeotti said. It was an echo of Russia’s aerial destruction of Grozny in 1999 and 2000 and a prelude to the fierce siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in the current invasion.
The killings of civilians at close range and sexual violence by individual soldiers are a separate matter. In Bucha, civilians told The New York Times that the moods and behaviors of the Russian troops grew uglier as the war progressed and that the first soldiers to arrive were relatively peaceful.
“You have a bunch of sleep-deprived young men with guns for whom, they feel, none of the rules apply,” Galeotti said.
The violence has caused scholars to reassess their understanding of the Russian army. In a military operation that seemed – at least at first – to be aimed at winning over Ukrainians’ allegiance to Moscow, atrocities against civilians seem grotesquely counterproductive. Russia already experienced that in Chechnya, where Russian violence against civilians fueled the Chechen resistance.
“Every dead civilian meant a bullet into a Russian soldier,” said Kirill Shamiev, who studies Russian civil-military relations at the Central European University in Vienna. “I thought that they had learned some lessons.”
But Stanislav Gushchenko, a journalist who served as a psychologist in the Russian military in the early 2000s, said he was not surprised by the reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. He recalled the quotidian violence in his unit and the banal mistreatment of Russian civilians, like the time a group of soldiers he was traveling with by long-distance train stole a cooked chicken that an older woman in their carriage had brought along for sustenance.
In a phone interview from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Gushchenko marveled at the Russians who now express shock.
“I say, ‘Guys, things were about the same 20 years ago,’ ” he said. “You lived in your own, closed world, in some kind of bubble, or as psychologists say, in a comfort zone, and didn’t want to notice this or truly didn’t notice.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.