The Hill

When the Russian army withdrew from Ukraine’s Kyiv region, the world was shocked by the sheer scale of murder and rape that it had perpetrated. This level of wanton violence is usually characteristic of low-tech paramilitaries engaged in asymmetric warfare, and quite unexpected from the regular forces of an industrial nation.

It is easy to explain away these killings as the product of a lack of control, or of low troop morale. But the real reason for the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian army is both more simple and more sinister: Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted mass terror as a conscious strategy to attempt to intimidate — and dominate — Ukraine’s population.

Among the first targets destroyed in Mariupol were local hospitals, along with a theater that sheltered at least 1,300 civilians. This can’t be chalked up to indiscriminate bombing; rather, it reflects the Russian version of “shock and awe,” which entails the systematic destruction of civil infrastructure — including hospitals — in order to demoralize the population.

This strategy is reflected in the treatment of prisoners and the displaced. Every civilian who seeks to leave occupied urban centers, like Mariupol, is forced through a filtration camp. There, the penniless refugees are strip-searched, browbeaten, threatened, and generally subjected to all manner of demeaning treatment. This reflects terror on an industrial scale. After all, a soldier might shoot a civilian by mistake. But you can hardly set up a “filtration” camp accidentally.

Nor have civilians been allowed to flee combat zones, as international law demands. Instead, in multiple cities, Russia’s military command established blockades and fired on civilian cars trying to leave. Granted, the order given may not have been to “kill every fleeing civilian car,” but the practical effects of painting fleeing civilians as enemies was precisely that.

The fate of those who stayed behind was more gruesome still. People were shot in the back of the head, with hands tied behind their back. Some civilians were tortured by soldiers and then transferred to a prison in Russia, and, what is even more sinister, right now Russia is engaged in a campaign of mass terror and harassment in every conquered region, including those that were occupied virtually without resistance.

“In and near Kherson there are at least four prisons where they torture and kill,” says Ukrainian presidential advisor Alexei Arestovich, 46. “And we know of two new Buchas that happened in Kherson and in Zaporizhia regions.”

Vadym Boychenko, 44, the mayor of Mariupol, told me: “The whole city of Mariupol is turned into a giant concentration camp.” The city still has some 100,000 inhabitants left — and anybody who ventures on the streets can be strip-searched or beaten, or much worse.

This is not something that is done by out-of-control troops. These are not random acts, but part of a systemic campaign by Russian forces of eliminating anyone who might be a Ukrainian patriot or a potential troublemaker.

Of course, the victims were not called that. In Russian official newspeak, they were called “Nazis,” and all “Nazis” were to be eliminated. Everybody who didn’t hail the Russians who destroyed their houses, killed their family and robbed their property as liberators were “Nazis.” As a result, all Ukrainians were deemed “Nazis,” and subject to “de-Nazification.”

Russian authorities didn’t mince words, either. Alexey Zhuravlev, a deputy of the State Duma, literally called for the extermination of 2 million Ukrainians. While Margarita Simonyan, head of Russia’s infamous RT propaganda outlet, complained that “[a] very substantial part of Ukrainians are Nazis.”

It is easy to mistake this orgy of killing for uncontrolled violence, but it is not. It is an attempt to cow the people and instill a sense of utter hopelessness. Even the randomness of killings and rapes contributed to this perception; for the terror to be truly terrifying it has to be random.

This has been President Putin’s strategy of choice. He is not naïve enough to believe all Ukraine will love him. From the outset, he knew that he would have to cow the Ukrainian people into submission — and that mass terror is his only means of doing so and the only type of warfare of which the Russian army is capable.

The civilized world has a term for those who orchestrate campaigns of mass terror to achieve their political objectives. It’s the same one that President Biden used in March when referring to Russia’s president. The term is “war criminal.”


Yulia Latynina, a journalist, worked for Echo of Moscow radio station and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper until they were shut down as part of the current war in Ukraine. She is a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Defender of Freedom award.