Vladimir Putin’s tactic of targeting civilian populations has finally backfired. Instead of demoralizing war-weary Ukrainians it has galvanized its European neighbors and re-invigorated NATO.
This comes as two Russian missiles hit a crowded shopping center in the city of Kremenchuk, killing over 20 people and injuring 59. The number of casualties is expected to rise in the coming days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has labelled the attack “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history” and claimed that it was timed to cause as many casualties as possible.
Before Kremenchuk it was Mariupol that bore the brunt of Putin’s attacks on civilians. Russian forces conducted both targeted and indiscriminate attacks on the city, including apartment blocks, hospitals, schools and civic buildings. The city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, has claimed that approximately 21,000 civilians have been killed. 250 Ukrainian soldiers eventually surrendered what remains of the city to Russian forces in May after holding out for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks. Marioupol is now in ruin.
The abhorrent attack on civilians in Mariupol reached its peak when Russian forces bombed a theatre, killing at least a dozen people. The word ‘children’ had been written in large letters outside the building.
These tactics were also used on Kharkiv and Chernihiv. Amnesty International documented numerous indiscriminate attacks in Kharkiv, with buildings destroyed and at least nine people killed in one attack. In Chernihiv, 47 civilians were killed when Russian airstrikes hit two schools and several apartment blocks.
Russia has form here, with Putin targeting civilian populations as a well-worn tactic to demoralize communities and achieve his strategic goals. The targeting, terrorizing, and killing of civilians was used to horrific effect in Syria from 2015. In partnership with Syrian government forces, Russian forces besieged and attacked civilian areas, including hospitals and schools. This included the use of ‘barrel’ bombs and chemical weapons, costing the lives of thousands of innocent people and causing untold misery.
Let’s be clear, both the indiscriminate and deliberate targeting of civilians constitutes war crimes. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, has publicly accused Putin of being a war criminal and the International Criminal Court is conducting an investigation over alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces.
But Putin’s tactics have finally backfired.
NATO, Russia’s biggest adversary, has been horrified by the attacks on civilians this close to its borders. At the recent NATO summit in Madrid, President Biden announced the United States would significantly increase its military deployments in Europe. This includes establishing a permanent headquarters in Poland, deploying 5,000 troops to Romania, and increasing deployments to the Baltics.
The alliance also announced plans to increase the number of forces at high readiness to over 300,000, a dramatic increase from the existing 40,000. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, said that the increase is a direct response to Russian actions in Ukraine. Stoltenberg also announced that the alliance would alter its official stance on Russia, from a ‘strategic partner’ to posing ‘a direct threat to our security, to our values, to the rules-based international order.’
This represents the biggest increase in NATO defenses since the end of the Cold War.
Russia’s neighbors have also sought closer ties with the West in response Putin’s atrocities. Finland and Sweden are now joining NATO, representing a huge pivot for two countries that long prided themselves on neutrality. Moldova and Georgia have also applied for membership to the European Union, a previously unthinkable step for two countries with such a strong connection with Russia.
The re-invigoration of NATO, through enlargement and increased military capabilities, is the opposite of what Putin intended when his forces invaded Ukraine.
Instead of a divided, indecisive NATO, Russia is now economically crippled and hemmed in on all sides. Furthermore, countries in its perceived sphere of influence have used Russian aggression as the final straw to seek closer ties with the West, finally leaving Russia’s orbit.
This has revealed Russia for what it really is: a diminished power with nothing to offer except aggressive nationalism and terror.
The hope now is that a weakened Russia spells the end of civilians as targets. It is up to the international community to ensure that this is the case.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com