top of page
  • Writer's picturePhilip Blood

From God of War to Putin’s Hammer

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Explaining why Mechanised Genocide features in the modern Russian Way of War

From the Russian-Ukrainian War that began in February 2022, there has already established recurring themes across social media. They have included: a lucky dip of World War Two analogies, the dubious claim that logistics are breaking the Russian way of war, that sanctions will bankrupt the economy, that Putin is sick, mad or the devil (or all three), that the Russian Army is in need of tyres, that railroads or railways are a deep mystery (especially for American ‘experts’), that the Ukrainians are winning, the voyeuristic interest in death and destruction, and that perhaps nuclear war is just around the corner. My concern as a scholar of security warfare and genocide, is the mounting humanitarian calamity facing the west – both Europe and North America. Initial reports suggested upwards of 5 million refugees, that figure has doubled in less than two weeks as the scale of progressive destruction continues. From this emerging horror, there are signs that Putin is employing his military forces beyond conventional military goals, and instead using them for political ends. The wilful use of bombardment has already been judged as a war crime; the question is whether these methods have a deliberate genocidal intention. This paper was written with the purpose of focusing upon one key element within the modern Russian way of war – the annihilation bombardment.

The absence of the God of War in post-1945 Soviet operations

Arguably, the raison d’être of the Russian way of war was always to defend the regime at all costs.[1] Prior to 1917, the monarchy was protected by a loyal army and Cossack bands prepared to spill ‘other’ Russian blood to protect the regime. In 1917, the army turned on the regime as the corruption and failure began to degrade Russia’s national existence. After the Bolsheviks took power, a secret police organisation was raised to protect the regime. Its political motivation reflected the ideology of the regime, with cohesion and control harnessed to the leadership group of the state. The Red Army established the traditional conventional cultures of a standing army. Armour, infantry and artillery formed elite cadres, while images of armoured trains framed the propaganda of a worker’s revolution. They also depicted political survival – the revolution had survived a war of the rails. During the Second World War, the railways became the primary targets of the Soviet partisans in the Nazi occupied areas, while the trains were the hidden hand of Soviet logistics. However, on the battlefield, it was the artillery that smashed victory against Nazi Germany. This capability initially reached fruition in the deep defence at Kursk in 1943. Then, as Red Army took the strategic initiative, artillery became the offensive hammer in campaigning: Dnipro Bend 1943, Bagration 1944, Frankfurt/Oder 1945, and Berlin 1945. At the end of the war, film and books celebrated the artillery as the destroyer of fascism. In the postwar years the railways were also extended, forming an iron web across Russia, and raising internal lines as a defence mechanism. Many of those lines were integrated with Belarus and Ukraine. Even today, the Russian army employs over 25,000 railway troops in a variety of roles, reflecting its strategic importance.

After 1917, a unique tradition of artillery developed in the military culture of the Russian way of war. This was not always a successful or efficient tradition as Alexander Hill has explained.[2] The study of Soviet doctrines such as ‘deep battle’ or ‘deep operations’ are many, however, Russian artillery doctrine has not been at the forefront of research since the Cold War. If we imagined three examples of the key artillery pieces during the Second World War, we immediately turn to the Katyusha multiple rocket launcher, the Self Propelled 152mm howitzers and the masses of towed artillery. According to The Military Balance (2022), the multiple missile launcher, the SP howitzers and towed artillery are still the largest segment of army conventional hardware. The Russian order of battle identifies at least 4,894 artillery pieces as opposed to 2,927 main battle tanks and 1,700 armoured vehicles.[3] The ‘God of War’ reigns supreme.

Between 1945 and 1995, the artillery was in the background. In securing the Warsaw Pact and Soviet spheres of influence, the Red Army conducted two largescale intervention operations – Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 – without artillery. During the night Russian forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Red Army armoured forces entered Prague. The Russian pretext was: counter-revolution had to be prevented to save the Warsaw Pact. The Red Army deployed tanks, light armour and infantry for their mobility for power-projection, rather than destruction, and they used roads.

Image: Czech television

Noticeable in all these internal operations was the relative youth of the troops and the use of surprise. There were skirmishes and casualties, but the full force of bombardment was avoided. A story emerged that young Red Army soldiers had not been told they were being sent to suppress the Czech people. This would seem to echo the young recruits captured in the Ukraine at the start of Putin’s war.[4]

Image: Czech television

In 1979, in Afghanistan, the Red Army again adopted fast mobile forces with tanks and very quickly ran into trouble. Helicopter gunships were deployed for heavy support, but they were countered by US missiles – as depicted in the film Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). The Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan ended forty years of invincibility, but it could be argued that the arms of invincibility had not been committed in significant numbers to make a difference.[5]

In February 1992 the Soviet Union was officially disbanded. However, the constitutional crisis of October 1993 brought open conflict to the streets of Moscow, the first time since 1917. Under Boris Yeltsin’s orders, Red Army tanks fired on the White House and saved Yeltsin’s regime. In December 1994 the Russian Army launched three offensive operations towards Grozny, in the opening of the First Chechen War. The conflict lasted until August 1996. It was a calamity for Russia, with casualties reaching somewhere between 4-14,000 and defeat by Chechnya. Yeltsin was entirely responsible for escalating the conflict, but within specific operations there were serious flaws in the performance and capability of the Russian armed forces. The Battle of Grozny was the change point in operations. Heavy bombardment returned to Europe for the first time since 1945. Air raids and bombardment flattened the city. The Russians sustained significant losses of AFV’s and casualties in less than two months. However, they had inflicted more than 25,000 civilians killed. There were indications that rogue elements within the Russian high command system were working against the army’s cohesion.

Human rights bodies began to investigate mounting evidence of war crimes and extreme cases such as the Samashki massacre – categorised as a cleansing action by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.[6] In April 1996, a battalion of 245th Motor Rifle Regiment was attacked in Shatoy. The column was savaged, and an official report (alternative in brackets) claimed 53 (70) killed and 52 (100) wounding. The fighting turned into a vicious insurgency. Captain Vladimir Vermolin recalled convoys and columns were ambushed and everyone killed. Chechen videos were used to raise foreign volunteers and finance. A Chechen counter-offensive caught the Russians in a moment of operational complacency and had destroyed the column.

Revenge: ‘We have rolled over Shatoy’

Putin: The decision to invade sparking the Second Chechen War was made in March 1999. Putin became prime minister in August 1999, and president after Yeltsin retired in December 1999. One of Putin’s first public acts was to visit the Russian Army. He came to power, after Russia had taken the political decision to inflict ethnic cleansing through conventional warfare, but that doesn’t absolve him. Putin’s arrival a sparked a new dynamic of annihilation bombardment.

Image: Russian TV. Heavy SP artillery in 2nd Chechen War

In 2000, Putin received word that Shatoy was captured - he was overjoyed at the news. The relevance being the Russian Army had reversed the 1996 ambush and revenge for the ignominious defeat by Chechnya. This was the first step in a career that he later claimed was dedicated to making Russia great again.

Chechnya twenty years later is transformed. Reconstruction, racism and religion have paralleled developments across Putin’s regime. Religion was, in Marxist-Leninist dogma, ‘the opium of the people‘. Racism is a prominent feature of Putin’s dogma. However, if we followed the old dialectic that capitalism reaches its highest form through imperialism (Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine), we would have to presume Putin is just ‘another running dog’. This doesn’t inform us about Putin of Putinism? Modern Russia and China share similar global ambitions and have treated diplomacy as a playground. For decades, the west has been confused by the contradiction of Chinese Communism and it’s deep cuddle with western capitalism. Russia it was assumed had abandoned communism and was wholly on the road toward a western market economy. The compromises between capitalism and communism disguise an ideology that is strictly nationalistic, xenophobic and sometimes racist.

In 1992 a former follower in Mao’s long march explained his communism and why he worked with capitalism: ‘If a successful individual can rise up, be rewarded and the state remain secure, then capitalism and communism have found co-existence.’ I hadn’t realised that his words were intended to help me ‘come to terms’ with the scenes from the labour camp I had seen witnessed earlier. This relativisastion of political violence and authoritarianism is the ‘red’ thread that binds these two regimes. Only since 21st century have westerners begun to come to terms with Maoist capitalism, and this has coincided with Putin’s display of exterminatory nationalism.

Putin’s Hammer: The logic of mass destruction

The Germans called Hitler’s wars Vernichtungskrieg – annihilation war. Putin has redirected the conventional power of the army and made it the hammer of his political agenda. He scrolls through the means for political violence like any dictator, while others might claim this comes from his KGB handbook. His willingness to conscript youth for his violent political ends was a pointer to a deeper cynicism. During the 2016 European championships, Russian football hooligans burst onto social media with extreme violence. Within hours Putin made a comment about the hooligans, implying a few Russians could beat a thousand English fans. Western press fixated on the old tropes of troubled youths and outcasts. They saw the gang culture as nationalistic but overlooked Putin’s deliberate radicalisation of youth through the Nashi movement. Putin revealed a deviousness in the radicalisation youth, but worse was his application of this in soft power in diplomacy, once again revealing that lurking inner violence.

Putin’s resort to mass destruction and mass death has been a feature of the Russian way of war since the first attacks on Grozny in 1995 that caused 25,000 casualties. Aleppo in 2016 was the game changer. The Russian forces that supported the Assad regime in Syria, used the insurgency as a testing ground for weapons and techniques. Putin learned that just as the allied powers were able to bombard Afghanistan and Iraq, with impunity, he could do the same or worse. The use of chemical weapons included dropping barrel loads of chlorine on the insurgents and civilians. The scale of bombardment turned entire communities into dead zones, and very soon dead cities. These paralysing methods were harnessed to a command system that was increasingly falling into step with Putin’s logic for aggressive wars underpinned by political violence. Then in 2021 Putin released an essay in which he announced his aim to recreate the Russian empire.[7] Biographies of Putin have not examined his influence on the Russian way of war. The closest to his story is Catherin Belton’s fine book Putin’s People (2020), which will unfortunately lose its impact by the changing events in the Ukraine, but remains the most insightful.[8] The conclusion drawn at this time, is that Putin is far from a typical war criminal or dictator.

Image: Foreign & Commonwealth office

In 2008 Putin introduced a programme of military reform. The process was planned for completion by 2020. There were overruns and delays, the plan was not achieved. This of course raises questions over whether those reforms that did happen were properly wedded into the military system, and the Russian troops properly trained or worked up to meet the new equipment doctrines.[9] In 2020, the artillery remain the power within the Russian Army’s order of battle and the central force of the Putin’s Anaconda plan in the Ukraine. According to Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, ‘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. The artillery is used to smash targets over a short or extended period. Manoeuvre by fire can also shift fire to support several offensive operations from different directions. The artillery mission is to gain superiority over an opponent, and this is known as the ‘massed artillery gambit’. Thus, Russian artillery doctrine still affirms the benefits of massed artillery.

The artillery missions are normally arranged by type of target. The main mission is ‘annihilation’, the purpose being to render the opponent virtually powerless. Indirect fire is planned mathematically to achieve 70-90 percent probability of destroying an individual target, or in the range of 50-60 percent for an area target. Within the framework of this mission, the rubblizing of urban centres or flattening them becomes the logic of bombardment. Given Russian terrain there is a general command understanding that expenditures of ammunition are always high. When destruction is planned and plotted by the hectare, it was assumed drones would be used for reconnaissance. In the past, questions were raised about the efficiency of fire control communications. Given these concerns it’s possible the artillery are operating with different communications. The positioning of artillery and its specific operations are beyond the remit of this paper.[10] However, it should be noted that with railways providing a constant flow of supplies, the artillery could continually pummel targets from 20 kilometres without the front troops having to do much more than hold the line. Thus we can begin to recognise that Putin’s anaconda plan has wider benefits if the artillery are the primary offensive arm and the anti-cultural purpose is punishment through bombardment.

The classifications and numbers of artillery in the Russian Army are bewildering. The multiple rocket launchers, the self-propelled howitzers and the towed artillery reflect the Second World War heritage. Examining these weapons in the context of Putin’s war in the Ukraine, is to confront the realistic potential for mechanised genocide. Given the large populations in Kyiv or Kharkiv, the bombardment by heavy ordinance from grid co-ordinates is not only a very real prospect, but the potential casualties to the civilians could match the numbers in Grozny – per Ukrainian city! The capabilities of the Msta-S, to take one self-propelled howitzer as an example, it has 152 mm howitzer, with a range of 15 kilometres, can set up to fire in 30 minutes, fire four or five 15 kilo shells per minute and then move off. A battery of these guns could rubblize vast areas in a short time.[11] The Russian specialist forces deploy flamethrower forces are part of the NBC Defence Regiments, in a military system that internally plans to survive and thrive if ever there was a tactical nuclear confrontation. The TOS1 Burantino is a multiple rocket launcher, flamethrower system, it fires thirty 220mm missiles in 7.5 seconds, within the short range of 4 kilometres. They are a thermobaric weapon that cause deep shockwaves and were used in Afghanistan because the weapon has advantages in mountainous terrain. They have the potential to utterly devastate municipalities because they dominate urban battle space, clearing enemy forces and smashing bunkers.[12] Aviation raises a further dimension, but is outside of this working paper’s remit.


Image: Mariupol 23 March 2022

The scale of destruction being meted out on Ukrainian cities surpasses anything seen in Europe since 1945. An ultimatum has been offered and rejected by the Ukrainians, a city horrendously damaged, if not largely paralysed, by heavy bombardment. The analogies with Stalingrad in 1942/3 or Kyiv in 1941 or 1943 do not reflect events in 2022. In 1942 the Red Army was retreating the destruction was created by the German Army. When the battle turned, the Germans were forced to fight in the ruins they created. The Germans were encircled within the Stalingrad city limits and cut-off from their supplies, which was never the case for the Red Army. Direction of attacks and offensive thrusts do not allow direct comparisons for Kyiv from World War Two. The only story that might have a bearing on Kyiv was its postwar reconstruction, as explained by Martin Blackwell.[13] We must look to events in Grozny, Aleppo, Georgia and the Crimea to understand Putin’s motives and intentions. If recreating the Russian empire is Putin’s intention, the west must look at more serious counters than sanctions to reduce his strategic advantages. By adopting the old-style war-making of using the annhilation bombardment, he knows he has an advantage and NATO advances have been neutralised. Shelling cities with artillery is barely detectable unlike missile batteries. With railways feeding the guns, Putin’s war could go on for a very long time. Given his recent writings, broadcasts and commitment to the campaign, I therefore conclude, his intentions are mechanised genocide across a large part if not all the Ukraine.

[1] Chris McNab, The Great Bear at War: The Russian and Soviet Army 1917-Present, (London, 2019). Also note Mark Galeotti’s foreword. [2] Alexander Hill, The Red Army and the Second World War, (Cambridge, 2017), pp.32-38, 50-51. [3] IISS, The Military Balance, 2022, e-copy, pp.413-415. [4] Background reading from the Russian perspective included: David Marples, Motherland: Russia in the Twentieth Century, (London, 2002), Ronald Grigor Suny, Russia: The Twentieth Century, Vol.III, (Cambridge, 2006). [5] Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, (Oxford, 2011). [6] [7] [8] Catherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the west, (London, 2020). [9] IISS, The Military Balance 2010, (London 2010), pp.211-14. [10] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force structure, Tactics and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces, (Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016), pp.233-234. [11] Ibid, p.232. [12] Ibid, pp.320-321. [13] Martin J. Blackwell, Kyiv as Regime City: The Return of Soviet Power After the Nazi Occupation, (Rochester, 2016).

327 views0 comments


bottom of page