A holocaust by artillery: Russian military operations in Ukraine
Updated: May 4
Russian Giatsint-S SP artillery. Image: dfnc.ru
War has returned to Europe, and it’s horrifying. Since the opening salvos of Putin’s illegal war against Ukraine, the artillery has been at the heart of all the military operations. I have repeatedly argued that Russia’s calculated bombardments are crimes against humanity and genocide (Tweet: 10 March 2022 and Adjutant’s Lounge Podcast 12 March 2022). When I first wrote about the artillery bombardments (refer to the blog: 24 March 2022), the scale of refugees moving to the west was less than 2 million, it then jumped to 5 million and now it’s closer to 8 million. These frightened refugees have spread fear of Putin and war to the west, adding to the general reluctance for any level of intervention.
The scale of destruction has turned vast tracts of Ukraine into a wasteland. In less than four weeks Mariupol became a dead city. To save on artillery shells, Putin has ordered his commanders to seal up the city's last defenders into what will no doubt be cast as “the black hole of Mariupol”. The Anaconda plan (refer to the blog: 24 March 2022) has been reorganised and redirected to consolidate gains in the south and east Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv area left behind appalling scenes of mass death and mass destruction. Putin’s illegal war was genocidal from the outset, but the employment of artillery to destroy civilians is a holocaust by artillery.
In previous blogs, I discussed how artillery has remained the professional elite of the Russian Army. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles observed, ‘The Soviet Army was an artillery army with many tanks. The Soviets structured their army around artillery. The Russian Army is also artillery-centric.’ They have written about ‘manoeuvre by fire’, whereby artillery remains in positions firing on one or shifting to several targets without moving. In a recent discussion with Professor Chris Bellamy, author of The Red God of War (1986), he was asked his opinion of what Soviet Red Army artillerists would think of the deliberate shelling of Ukrainian civilians. He thought they would have been critical about the waste of shells. This targeting has had a brutalizing influence on the Russian way of war. There will be long term ramifications for the laws of war and the indiscriminate use of artillery in future wars.
Before this war, mass civilian casualties were treated as collateral losses. Caught in the path of war civilians have always suffered serious losses. The difference in this war concerns the visible shift in operations, from running the risk of inflicting collateral casualties to the deliberate mass killing through heavy bombardment. If, as discussed in a previous blog, the Russian artillery mission is ‘annihilation’ of 70-90 per cent of target areas, we can no longer expect those ‘acceptable levels’ of collateral deaths. Putin’s Anaconda plan has factored in both genocide by artillery, as the primary offensive arm of war, and the anti-cultural operations of mass destruction to Ukraine’s culture. The artillery is the hand of destruction, while the ancillary units – tanks, infantry, and police – are serving the guns. What the artillery doesn’t kill, is left for the killing squads – sadly, the Bucha atrocity did not come as a surprise. There have also been cases of rapes, beatings and forced deportations extending the range of genocide to psychological terror. There will be more atrocities, mass destruction, refugees, and forced deportations. This destruction has come at a price, Russia has experienced local setbacks, battlefield defeats and the loss of warships. These losses have in turn been propagandised by Putin’s regime, pushing the once reluctant Russian public into gradual support for the war. Once again, the old rallying cry of ‘Russia against all’ is prevalent, but with the undercurrent of demands for extermination. We are locked in an escalating conflict and like rabbits locked in headlights, watching with deep dread.
War is a crime, but this war has been criminal from the outset. Why conquest? This war is about motherland reunification through artillery. Reunifying Russia and Ukraine through force rolls back thirty years of devolution after the dissolution of the USSR. Putin’s methods reflect all those tell-tale signs of a once-great military-political power in terminal decline. Russia’s fighting power no longer has the destructive intensity that once made it the most feared across Europe. To compensate for this national decline, the artillery is employed to cause maximum destruction of Ukrainian resistance and civilians. Putin’s hammer is dishing out punishment and genocide in equal measure.
In theoretical-strategic terms, whereas civilians had always been collateral damage in the war, in this war they have now been made the primary targets of Putin’s hammer. This is the most extreme transformation of war and morality. Mass destruction of cities is now the collateral damage of war. The genocide of Ukrainians was the primary military objective from the outset of the war. The public declarations to exterminate Banderites to save the people is akin to believing within every Ukrainian neo-Nazi there is a Russian desperate to escape. Putin has gifted the Russian way of war with the Faustian pact of genocidal political aims. Public opinion in social media has judged the wilful use of bombardment as a war crime. Questions remain unanswered: how will this war be stopped before Ukraine is irrevocably destroyed; how will this genocide be judged, and how will the guilty men be prosecuted? As a historian of security warfare, occupation, and genocide, and as an anti-war scholar, my growing concerns are the humanitarian calamity and despair over how to stop this war.