The deep historical roots of Russia’s scorched earth policy

The Russians are pursuing a scorched earth policy in Ukraine as they did in the War of 1812 and after Operation Barbarossa.

The Fire of Moscow, 1812.
The Fire of Moscow, 1812. Credit: Album / Alamy

When faced with the consequences of failures in leadership, organisation and technology, Russia has historically turned to scorched earth policies that destroy its own landscapes, industries, and people. Now, as its armies retreat in the face of a Ukrainian offensive, Russia has moved on from scorched to flooded and radioactive earth, as dams and nuclear power plants become targets of destruction.

Two examples of Russia’s willingness to destroy its lands in the face of humiliating defeat will suffice. During the War of 1812 with France, the generals of Tsar Alexander I ordered soldiers to burn what they could not use as the army retreated towards Moscow, and infuriated Napoleon by refusing to engage him. Peasants starved, their animals were killed, and their land was denuded. When Napoleon entered Moscow in September, he discovered the city empty – and set on fire by Russians. Without food, and without an enemy to vanquish, Napoleon retreated, his invading army eventually one eighth of its original size.

In the Second World War, the poorly-prepared Red Army, shocked in June 1941 by the suddenness of Hitler’s  Operation Barbarossa, had no choice but to withdraw eastwards, burn crops, destroy bridges, and evacuate factories as the Germans advanced. Leaving citizens to fend for themselves, the Red Army dismantled entire steel mills and munitions plants, and it shipped them by rail to the Ural Mountains, where they were put back into production. The German armies quickly overran 850,000 square kilometres of territory, taking Minsk and Smolensk in the first days of war on the way to Moscow and Stalingrad. Stalin, who had signed a treaty with the Nazis and Hitler to divide Eastern Europe, disappeared from public view.

As the Soviet armies rapidly retreated, they left behind fields of stubble and smouldering forests. They dynamited factories and housing. They destroyed almost 32,000 industrial enterprises. Even more, they blew up dams and levees, locks and irrigation systems, and in total roughly 2.5 million kW generating capacity, which included the Dnipro hydroelectric power station in Ukraine, built at great fanfare by Stalin in the early 1930s as a symbol of the USSR’s technological verve. Soldiers dumped oil and gas into rivers and lakes in order to deprive the enemy of potable water.

Putin, an admirer of Stalin, has proudly embraced similar policies in Ukraine as victory slips from his hands. He has targeted cities, power stations and power lines, hit hospitals and kindergartens, attacked nuclear facilities to convert them into dirty bombs, and now demolishes hydroelectric stations. Failing in the effort to conquer Ukraine, Putin determined to transform Soviet-era structures into massive-scale weapons against land and people.

The construction of Kakhovka hydroelectric power station (357 MW), dam and reservoir on the Dnipro River, while completed under Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, commenced in 1950, and was one of a series of such waterworks pursued in Stalin’s grandiose Plan for the Transformation of Nature (1948), carried out by millions of gulag prisoners. The plan focused on ‘hero projects of communism’ – precisely dams and canals – that were immortalised in literature, postage stamps, and movies, but which never referred to those required to build them. The ‘hero’ waterworks on the Dnipro, Don, Volga and other major European rivers served the Kremlin’s effort to subdue Eastern Europe by creating a unified electrification, irrigation, and transport network that harnessed resources to the Kremlin’s military and economic plans to be prepared for the next, inevitable war.

Putin has pursued his own ‘hero projects’ to build state power – but is ready to sacrifice them for his war on Ukraine. Beyond oil and gas operations, and a megalomaniacal effort to complete Stalin’s fantastical and disastrous dream to build a trans-Arctic railway, the most obvious Putin hero project is the Crimean Bridge, erected to unite annexed Crimea with Russia over the Kerch Strait. The bridge’s ultimate purpose was to funnel Russian citizens and supplies into Crimea in support of his war with Ukraine. The bridge was completed at a cost of almost $4 billion after four years as a state priority. Hitler and Stalin both tried and failed to span the stormy Kerch Strait with a bridge. Putin, in self-indulgent choreography, drove the very first vehicle, a supply truck, across the Crimean Bridge in 2018. The Russian postal service quickly issued commemorative stamps. How ironic that tens of thousands of Russians are now fleeing Crimea over the bridge, in dread of forthcoming Ukrainian attacks. The bridge has been hit by artillery and truck bombs several times, and its columns are already cracking, not because of the war, but because of the earlier effort to finish the project in Stalinist fashion – well before target dates as a symbol of enlightened leadership.

The Crimean Bridge did not help Putin prepare for his full-scale attack of Ukraine. At the start of the war, Putin directed the Russian army to capture nuclear power plants, factories and waterworks in occupied territories. They were routed on the way to Kyiv and have had to pull back into occupied territories to the East. Now, facing the loss of war, Putin has adopted wet earth tactics. The vast Kakhovka Reservoir served regional agriculture needs and was the source of the North Crimean Canal, built in the 1960s, which eventually supplied 85 per cent of Crimea’s water, mostly for agriculture, but also for municipal and industrial purposes. Destroying the dam will cut the water supply to Crimea, require rationing in towns and cities, and substantially cut Crimean grain, fruit and vegetable harvests. The blowing up of Kakhovka will interrupt the water supply to the irrigation systems in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, mostly in the occupied lands from which Russia is retreating, will require the closing of factories in Marganets, Nikopol, and Pokrov, and will destroy any remaining fisheries. Once the war has ended, it will take Ukraine years to rebuild the dam; without water, lands in the south of Ukraine will dry out. But this is Russia’s goal: to force the population to leave the region en masse.

There is no doubt Russia destroyed the dam. Engineering experts concluded that the Kakhovka demolition occurred from an explosion inside the station’s machine hall, which was fully in Russian hands. Elsewhere, in perhaps a dozen other locations, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism, the occupiers have built temporary dams with the goal of breaching them to cause flooding, greater human suffering and death. On top of the loss of lives, homes and memories, productive farmland, and industry, the Kakhovka breach will carry at least 450 tons of machine oil across the floodplain. Flooding will impact several dozen villages, affect the water supply in several other cities, and lead to rampant ecological damage and contamination from toxic substances – turbine oil, fuel from gas stations, and lubricants from factories. Already 700,000 people have lost access to potable water.

Another demonstration of Putin’s nihilistic tactic is his treatment of nuclear power plants (NPPs) in Ukraine. Ukraine operates 15 reactors at four stations that produced over half of the country’s electrical energy. In March 2022 Russian troops occupied the Zaporizhzhia NPP, with six reactors the largest station in Europe, on the Dnipro River and just 200 km from Crimea, and since that time has faced the risk of a nuclear disaster from artillery fire, sabotage and arson. The Russians have prevented Ukrainian plant operators from doing their jobs safely. Ukraine shut down ZNPP to guard against an accident, and also because the Russians had destroyed power lines that served the plant’s safety and control systems. The terrorist detonation of the Kakhovka dam threatens the ZNPP in any event because the station relies on water from the 2,155 km² Kakhovka Reservoir to cool the shutdown reactors and the spent fuel stored on-site. Thus, Russian troops, retreating in anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive, destroyed a dam and threatened nuclear safety in one cynical move before running off to Russia.

For a time, Russian soldiers even took over the Chernobyl exclusion zone, perhaps not understanding the danger to themselves, and it is unlikely that their commanders let them know of the risk of acute radiation sickness and, later, cancers.  But for several weeks, during their occupation, they raised radioactive dust and interfered with the safe storage of vast quantities of hazardous waste, and, having risked nuclear safety across Europe, hurriedly withdrew.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has appeared at Kakhovka, promising all possible aid, praising the men and women working rescue, criticising the Red Cross and the United Nations for their failure to offer support to those hurt and displaced in the tragedy, and noting the cowardice of the Russian occupiers on the other side of the Dnipro who are both refusing to help anyone and are launching mortar attacks on people who need to be evacuated. Unlike Putin and Stalin, Zelensky has been to the front to support the battle against the occupiers, while there is chaos on the Russian side of the Dnipro, as troops rapidly flee.

But Putin is a scorched-earth leader. He has disappeared from public view, and not for the first time. Like Stalin, who sat silently for ten days in the Kremlin after Hitler’s attack in June 1941, Putin has the habit of cowardice in the face of challenges. In August 2000, three months into his first term as president, Vladimir Putin remained on vacation in the Black Sea when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank onto the floor after an explosion, killing all 141 men on board – including 23 who survived a few days before suffocating – with Russia failing to mount a rescue mission.  When he finally appeared, 10 days later, Putin blamed the disaster on Russia’s military decline that occurred under Boris Yeltsin and criticised media reporting; his crushing of the remnants of free press in subsequent years is no doubt connected to his anger over the bad press he got for his handling of the tragedy.

And Putin has been silent about Kakhovka, too, refusing to provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians – and Russians – who have claimed the Dnipro basin as their home for generations. The Russians are pursuing a scorched earth policy as they did in the War of 1812, after Operation Barbarossa, and presently in the cities of Bakhmut, and Mariupol – and its Azovstal factory – which has been reduced to rubble. For Russia’s leaders, Ukraine’s people, land and such ‘hero projects’ critical to modern society as dams and reactors have meaning only as weapons of a murderous and cynical war.


Paul Josephson