We’ve rightly paid a lot of attention to the Russian military’s “strategy” of shelling densely populated civilian areas with little apparent concern for what is being hit (maternity hospitals, theaters serving as temporary shelters, seemingly random city neighborhoods) or credible justification for doing so. When it comes to the why of Russia’s actions, though, outside analysis generally begins and ends with a generic assertion that Russia is doing it to crush the “spirit” of the resistance, or to punish that resistance, or assertions that the Russian army has a modern history of using war crimes as supposed strategy—all variations of “the cruelty is the point.”
All of that may be true but, as I’ve alluded to before, I think it misses a more central reason why the modern Russian military has repeatedly turned to leveling civilian population centers when put into armed conflict. It is not necessarily that Russian generals are itching, on each battlefield, to turn to war crimes. It’s more likely a symptom of entrenched military cowardice.
Why are Russian generals firing into Ukrainian cities, at targets that can’t and won’t fire back? Because it’s one of the few logistical operations the grift-riddled, impossibly corrupt military infrastructure can still execute. If you’re a Russian general looking to show that you’re working hard to achieve implausible Kremlin objectives, parking yourself outside Mariupol or Kharkiv and shelling neighborhoods into wastelands of broken concrete is a no-muss path to, if not glory, at least not being called back to Russia in preparation for your fatal “heart attack.”
It’s where Russian generals attempt to do almost anything else that the system breaks down. But hunkering down in one place, with a static defensive perimeter and a direct rail, road, or major port to provide supplies and ammunition? That, the generals can still do.
We’ve now seen evidence of myriad structural problems within the Russian military, all of which were known in advance but with cumulative effects that have left professional analysts reeling as the nation is exposed as having a fraction of the apparent military prowess NATO countries have long presumed.
Russia’s mostly-conscript army is significantly undertrained, which is leading to catastrophic battlefield losses. The lack of competent noncommissioned officers—a major difference between the Russian military complex and that of the United States—is forcing high-ranking officers towards the frontlines so as to give orders and see that they are carried out. This, in turn, is resulting in the death of a shocking number of Russian generals and other top brass.
Behind it all lie two flaws which now seem existential. The first is such unrelenting corruption up and down the entire chain of command and in military procurement contracts that it’s no longer clear what percentage of Russia’s supposed military stores, from food to fuel to rifles, actually exist. The second is the modern Russian reorganization into small battle units, Battalion Tactical Groups, that are weighted towards defense, not offense and which top Russian leaders have been seemingly incapable of using for large-scale operations.
And so, time and time again, we see GRAD units unloading barrages of rockets aimed squarely at residential areas. An attack like this isn’t meant to target Ukrainian troops—it’s implausible. There’s nothing being aimed at. It’s meant solely to cause urban damage and civilian deaths.
Somewhere in the Kremlin, some high-level military bureaucrat ordered that towns like Kharkiv be taken. That quickly turned into a clusterfuck, when Russian troops were met with stiff resistance instead of rose petals, and Russian battalions that managed to barely make their way through rural Ukrainian territorial defense forces are getting ripped to pieces anywhere with terrain that favors Ukrainian ambushes. Taking these cities in military-to-military conflict would cause such heavy casualties that the Russian generals at the scene aren’t foolish enough to even try.
Instead, they’re parking outside the cities, setting up defensive lines of the sort that the Battalion Tactical Groups are theoretically designed to be good at, and unleashing as many rockets and artillery rounds as their logistics allow. There’s no attempt at military-to-military battle; faced with implausible orders to “take” population centers, generals are instead parking outside those centers, allegedly “regrouping” for weeks on end, and reporting back that they are “softening up” the cities by shooting off whatever can be shot off.
Again, there are no “targets” being aimed at, in the above videos. And in places like Mariupol, cities with high populations, wide spreads of infrastructure, and which present few supply difficulties for Russian generals, the resident brass population has spent many weeks systemically leveling buildings while keeping their (statistically) corrupt and incompetent selves away from the ever-bungled Russian advances and retreats elsewhere.
So long as they go through all the ammunition, they can claim they are contributing to Russia’s great and glorious victory. Eventually. It’s either that or order battle groups inside the cities, and a lot of the officers who have chosen plan B have found themselves no longer in charge of a fully functioning battle group. We’re now far enough into the war for every Russian officer to know that that’s a good way to end up dead, either from Ukrainian strikes or being run over by one of your own tanks or being summoned for the aforementioned Kremlin-sponsored heart attack.
So military-to-military conflict is, for career-centered Russian officers who want to get out of this alive, right out. Leveling Ukrainian cities in places where the Ukrainian military can’t easily dislodge you, however, allows you to give reports about how you fired X rockets at X “targets,” all of them invisible but now quite dead, and are now ready to fire however many more rockets the higher ranks provide.
This may be the only means of military conquest for a military that proves incompetent at actual military operation time and time and time again. The story of Russia’s prolific war crimes likely starts with the same crucial flaws that have made Putin’s armies seemingly incapable of doing anything else. Logistical incompetence prevents its armies from conducting large-scale operations farther than a stone’s throw from its own borders; a generation of brazen, encouraged corruption at the top ranks has produced a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which leveling civilian buildings is the only way for generals to “carry out” Kremlin orders while still keeping their heads attached to their necks.
Cowardice, in other words. They are shelling civilians because they don’t dare do anything else. And the whole of Putin’s kleptocracy is finely tuned to produce just this sort of incompetent, self-serving criminality, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has become the country’s default method of warfare.