Outside a theatre in Mariupol, Ukrainian civilians had painted the word “children” in Russian in huge white letters on the ground. Inside, as many as 800 people, mostly women and children, were sheltering from the fighting in the besieged southern Ukrainian port city when the red-roofed building was destroyed by a Russian airstrike on 16 March. At least 130 people survived, but it is difficult to know how many more were killed or may still be trapped in the rubble because the shelling was too intense to mount a rescue effort.
On 20 March, Russian forces bombed an art school in Mariupol where another 400 people had taken refuge. It is unclear how many survived. The city’s mayor says that 90 per cent of their buildings have been damaged or destroyed, including a maternity hospital. Workers have been forced to bury the dead in mass graves. There is no time to dig individual plots.
The EU has described Russia’s actions in the city as “war crimes”. For anyone who has followed the Russian military campaign in Syria – where hospitals and schools have been repeatedly targeted – or the razing of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999, these tactics should not be surprising. Indeed, the propensity to use violence, with complete indifference to civilian casualties, has been a key feature of Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Putin’s rise to prominence coincided with the Second Chechen War, the Russian offensive to crush separatist forces in the republic of Chechnya that began in 1999. The Russian ground invasion followed a series of mysterious apartment-block bombings in Russian cities that killed more than 300 people in September 1999, which the government blamed on Chechen separatists. But there have long been allegations, denied by the Kremlin, that Russian security services staged the attacks to provide a pretext for the war and to benefit Putin, who had been elected prime minister the month before. Previously the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin was able to position himself as a tough-talking wartime leader supposedly defending the country against grave security threats.
The war reduced the city of Grozny to rubble, prompting the UN to declare it the most destroyed city on earth. Civilian casualties were said to be in the tens of thousands. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya documented the devastation in her 2004 book Putin’s Russia, including the rape and murder of civilians by Russian forces, and the systematic torture of Chechen prisoners. “All of this is coordinated and managed by the FSB,” Politkovskaya wrote. “These are Putin’s people, they enjoy Putin’s support, and they carry out Putin’s policies.” Two years after the book was published, Politkovskaya was shot dead on Putin’s birthday in her apartment block in Moscow.
In the 22 years since that first conflict in Chechnya, Putin has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, occupied Crimea, and intervened in Syria to prop up the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad even as he attacked his own people with chemical weapons. Putin himself has authorised the use of radioactive polonium and the nerve agent Novichok in assassinations carried out in the UK, as well as in the attempted murder of the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Other Kremlin critics have been shot and jailed.
Yet so far the Russian leader has been able to do all this with relative impunity. Every time, no matter the extent of the violence or the audacity of his actions, he has been offered another opportunity to redeem himself. When Putin met George W Bush in 2001 after levelling Grozny, the then president of the US said he had looked into Putin’s eyes and been able to “get a sense of his soul”. In March 2009, seven months after Russia invaded Georgia, the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, with a mocked-up button to symbolise the Obama administration’s desire to “reset” the relationship.
In 2014, after annexing Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s forces supplied separatist fighters with the missile system they used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 people. I was based in Moscow at the time, and I remember a British friend telling me that relations between Russia and the West would never be the same again. But barely anything changed. There were international sanctions and Russia was kicked out of the G8, but Putin was still centre stage at the G20 summit in Turkey in 2015. Three years later Russia hosted the 2018 football World Cup and Donald Trump lavished him with praise at their summit in Helsinki.
Now Putin is destroying Ukraine’s cities and carrying out new atrocities against its civilians. He is also threatening his own people, vowing a “self-purification” campaign to root out “national traitors”. His experience to date has taught him that beyond the initial outcry there is unlikely to be a lasting price to pay. He has always found leaders who believe they can reason with him, powerful lobbyists to argue against the toughest sanctions, and a steady supply of customers for Russian oil and gas. It is essential that this time the West acknowledge the horrors he is perpetrating and prove him wrong.
There can be no more illusions about the nature of Putin’s rule. The murderous campaign he has unleashed in Ukraine is entirely in keeping with who he has
always been. As long as he is in power, there will be more cities like Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain