Bucha atrocities are an intrinsic part of the Russian way of war

Russian concepts of collective responsibility guide how its army deals with partisan warfare with horrifying consequences.
bucha tanks russian ukraine
The remains of a Russian tank regiment in Bucha, Ukraine on the 1st of March 2022 after it was attacked by Ukrainian forces. Credit: Geopix / Alamy Stock Photo.
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When Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha from Russian troops on the 2nd of April they found an atrocity. Outside each house was at least one executed civilian. Such incidents— Guernica, Racak, Halabja— often form inflection points in how wars are perceived. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bucha is indicative of Moscow’s concept of operation.

Putin framed this war as a liberation of Russians oppressed by a supposed Nazi movement that was the driving force behind Ukrainian nationalism: an historical aberration. Within this framework Russian soldiers were told to expect to be welcomed, but also that those who resisted were Nazis. Given the connotations surrounding the Great Patriotic War, the entire conflict was sold to Russian soldiers as one in which the enemy were already committing genocide against Russians.

Then there is the Russian tradition of anti-partisan warfare. For centuries the Russian peasantry were organised into village communes in which resources and responsibilities were pooled. Although the communes were somewhat ironically broken up by the Communist Party, the collectivisation of 1929 still left Soviet citizens organised into communal entities. Whereas in the English and Civil Code legal traditions it is the individual who is held accountable, in Russia there is a long history of communal responsibility and consequently punishment.

In Ukraine, Putin made clear in his public pronouncements before the war that the civil society leaders of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity would be held responsible for what he described as a Nazi coup. To that end, Russian intelligence had made lists of individuals to be killed or captured for public punishment. Had Russia succeeded in seizing Ukrainian cities there would have been an active hunt for these individuals. The Ukrainians knew about — and in some cases had obtained versions of — the lists.

In Western counterinsurgency doctrine much emphasis is put on separating the insurgent fish from the water in which they swim. ‘Hearts and minds’ strategies are aimed at making a population reject the insurgents that hide among them. The other Anglo-American approach, from the use of concentration camps in the South African War, to the strategic hamlets established in the Philippines, Malaya, and Vietnam, was to try and physically isolate insurgents from the population.

The Russian approach to anti-partisan warfare is quite different. Instead it holds the population accountable for the insurgents’ freedom of action. When hunting high value targets Russian forces will use measures such as kidnapping the families of insurgents, a tactic employed extensively in Chechnya. Against the wider population, however, the tactic is to hold villagers accountable for the activities of insurgents in their area, so that the insurgents suddenly find their presence unwanted.

In the Russian civil war, peasant communes routinely had parts of their communities murdered because of perceived support for the wrong side. In the Second World War, the Nazis and Communists employed these tactics. The precise acts of violence — gruesome execution of civil leaders, murder of military aged males, the rape of a community’s women — varies. The Bucha incident is reminiscent of Aldi in Chechnya where Russian soldiers went house to house shooting civilians. But the intent behind these killings is the same: to repress the population by holding the community collectively responsible for any and all acts of resistance. 

Atrocities such as Bucha are not just a result of Russian troops facing resistance and running out of control. Russian military theory assesses these horrific methods to be effective and these activities are resourced within Russian planning. It is an intrinsic part of the Russian way of war.

Jack Watling

Dr Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at RUSI.

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