Most Americans have no clue about the extent of civilian destruction, rape, murder, and torture the Kremlin has brought to Russian-occupied territories.

NATO dithers while Russia’s indiscriminate killing in Ukraine underlines that Putin only understands force

Firefighters put out a fire after two guided bombs hit the Epicenter shopping complex in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in May, as part of Moscow’s deliberate campaign against civilian targets. The sign reads “Garden Center.”
Andrii Marienko / AP

SELYDOVE, Ukraine — In this devastated small eastern town, in the heavily contested region of Pokrovsk, Russia’s deliberate bombing of civilian targets is visible everywhere.

I emphasize the word deliberate, because bombing civilians and civilian infrastructure is the centerpiece of Russia’s strategy to destroy Ukraine, even if it can’t occupy the country fully. As I drive around with Maj. Boris (call sign: Johnson) of the 59th Brigade, he points out an apartment building partly crushed by a glide bomb.

“What great military targets!” Boris laughs, without humor.

Two missiles hit the elementary school, one destroyed the kindergarten. The bank, the polytechnic college, a restaurant — all crushed. The roof of the local hospital was destroyed; a bomb even targeted the cemetery. This is not collateral damage from war; there are no military installations anywhere in the vicinity.

“They can’t take the big cities, so they try to empty and destroy every village and town, as well as civilian infrastructure for the entire country,” Boris said bitterly. “It’s nothing but civilian destruction.”

Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukrainian civilians makes clear what some NATO leaders are still too timid to face up to, as they prepare to meet for the alliance’s 75th-anniversary summit this week in Washington, D.C. Putin wants to destroy independent Ukraine and won’t stop unless he is forced to by giving Ukraine the Western weapons it needs right now and putting it on a clear path to NATO membership.

Ukrainians keep fighting, not because President Joe Biden and NATO force them to, as Russian propaganda blares daily, echoed word for word by Donald Trump and his MAGA devotees. Ukrainians keep fighting because they know what will happen to them if they agree to a cease-fire. It will only give Putin a breather to prepare for his next attack.

Most Americans have no clue about the extent of civilian destruction, rape, murder, torture, and de-Ukrainization Putin has brought to the territories Russia has occupied, nor the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians he has murdered. My current trip to Ukraine has been aimed at examining how Putin wages war, how Russia acts within the Ukrainian territory it has seized, and how it has treated POWs — all contributing to Putin’s long list of war crimes.

What I have seen is a mountain of evidence as to why there is no point to negotiations with a Kremlin leader who disdains international law, commits war crimes too numerous to catalog — and has broken every accord Russia made with Ukraine since the Soviet Union dissolved.

As nearly every Ukrainian I spoke to repeated: Putin understands only force.

The Russian way

On this trip — my fourth since the initial whispers of war in early 2022 — I visited Kyiv, the key southern port of Odesa, the eastern front lines near Pokrovsk and Chasiv Yar, and the cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, where many internal refugees from the occupied territories live.

One cannot fly into Ukraine because all airports have been closed since the war started. So my route took me by plane through Warsaw, Poland, to Chișinău (Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, and then three and a half hours by car to Odesa. No sooner did I reach the “pearl of the Black Sea” than I saw the results of Putin’s bombing campaign aimed at destroying Ukraine’s power and heating infrastructure.

Odesa was dark, as rolling blackouts hit all of Ukraine’s cities. No air-conditioning, except at hotels, restaurants, and for those who can afford generators. That means no refrigeration, and often no water. It means mothers with kids who live in apartments have to carry them, along with nonperishable groceries, up punishing flights of stairs.

Many Ukrainians told me Putin’s goal is to freeze the people during the winter, driving millions more to flee to neighboring European countries, and denuding the country of population. This is a war crime. This is why The Hague, Netherlands-based International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants in June for former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov for attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, that won’t stop the Kremlin.

“From the first days of the invasion, the Russian army proved that human life does not matter to them,” I was told in Kyiv by Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, who is compiling data on Russian war crimes. “More than 162,000 civilian infrastructure objects have been damaged or destroyed, and of these, 130,000 are housing.”

I have seen this Russian destruction over and over in every big city I have visited — deliberate targeting of universities, high schools, markets, cinemas, shopping malls, even the Ukrainian equivalent of a huge Home Depot in Kharkiv.

“Plunging Ukraine into darkness and cold is an obvious plan of the aggressor and one more sign of the genocidal nature of this war,” Kostin said.

I traveled east by car, over bumpy roads and through partly destroyed villages where some people still refuse to leave. We passed endless fields of wheat and rye, and the early yellow buds of the sunflower crop.

In stark contrast to those cheerful blossoms, Putin’s disdain for humanity — including his own troops — was the subject of much discussion with the military units I visited. I also had many long talks about the death toll caused by Congress’ six-month cutoff of military aid, and the creative efforts of Ukrainian soldiers to hold the line by technological innovation, including drones.

Most revolting to Ukrainian soldiers is the Russian disregard for their own men, leaving dead bodies to rot in trenches and fields and even burying the wounded alive.

I won’t easily forget the conversation I had with 28-year-old Capt. Hans (his military code name), who heads an artillery battery in the 59th Brigade, and went through the painful “shell hunger” caused by the U.S. aid holdup.

Sitting on rough homemade chairs deep in the woods near a base outside Pokrovsk, Hans spoke of the human waves of troops Russia sends forward. When the first wave, usually draftees from the occupied Donbas region, are slain, the second wave advances over their corpses. The next waves are Russian convicts or members of its ethnic minorities. By the 10th or 15th attempt, they often manage to move forward.

“There are plenty of cases where they roll over or through Russian bodies,” Hans told me. “They throw bodies out of trenches to use the same trenches and don’t mind the smell.

“This is how they advance. When we see the way they treat their own with no respect, as if they are not human, all the hairs on our bodies stand on end.”

Stretching his long legs, Hans reflected on a question that deeply bothers many on the front lines.

“Putin said Ukraine needed to concede four regions” — which Russian troops only partly occupy — “to Moscow. But how can we accept that if there are Ukrainian citizens there who don’t want to live under Russia? They know what will happen, like Bucha, Hostomel, or Mariupol — massive killing and rapes,” he said. “For Russian troops in occupied territories, there are no laws. They can do anything they want.”

News from Mariupol

Capt. Hans’ thoughts on occupied territories touched on a place I often think about: Mariupol.

I visited the once beautiful port city just before Putin’s army blasted it into the ground in 2022. That included bombing the city’s iconic drama theater, which was sheltering 600 women and children.

I checked out the office of Me Mariupol in Dnipro, one of a series of centers for Mariupol refugees set up across the country by the city’s former and still de facto mayor, Vadym Boychenko. The mayor’s deputy for these centers, former Mariupol City Councillor Oleksandr Khaliavinskyi, was still visibly affected by the destruction of a multicultural city so many Ukrainians loved.

Although there was no electricity on a steamy hot day, at least a dozen volunteers — all escapees from the city — were busy helping fellow refugees go through a free clothes rack, fill out legal documents, or pick up their children from a day-care center on the site. “Eighty percent of the city buildings were destroyed, including 2,500 apartment blocs,” Khaliavinskyi told me. “Many of these were demolished with dead or wounded inside.”

I spoke at a nearby cafe with a 20-year-old university student who escaped from Mariupol in March 2023 — I will call him Alex because some family members remain in the city. “The most horrible thing I saw,” he told me, “was when the Russians blew up a whole building damaged by their rockets with injured people still in it. They took the rubble to the dump, then covered the building site with cement. No one thought to evacuate the living.

“People were screaming because you could see men and women stuck under collapsed concrete plates. The Russians didn’t bother to help. They waited for them to stop screaming. A nice lady wearing a pink robe was crying for help. Some humanitarian volunteers begged the Russian police to rescue her. They said, ‘Shut your mouth.’”

Putin has made a big show of visiting new prefab apartment blocks with yellow and green trim that are promoted on Russian social media as proving Russia is rebuilding the city. “The fancy buildings are for those Russians whom their government is bringing from the far east to repopulate the city and do menial jobs. Now the population is more of ethnic outsiders than of locals,” Khaliavinskyi said.

“All the population is forced to get Russian passports, otherwise there is no health care or pensions. In every neighborhood, there are checkpoints to stop and investigate your phone for any Ukrainian channels, which means arrest and torture. People are so scared to use the Ukrainian language and can only receive Russian TV or propaganda,” he added.

Youngsters are indoctrinated at school to believe there is no such country as Ukraine, and in adulthood are mobilized into the local proxy army for Russia, which is sent to the front as cannon fodder against brother Ukrainians.

Alex told me how Russians had stripped the facilities of his technical university bare, tossing out all books in Ukrainian and even Russian books whose content they disliked. The Russians also looted the local history museum. An avid techie, Alex managed to hack into the database of his university and found a series of presentations the Russians had designed for lecturers to give to high school and university classes. “The maps showed no more Ukrainian state, and the bulk of the country had been turned into regions of Russia.”

“They teach them the worst lies about Ukraine,” I was told angrily by Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk in Kyiv. She has the hopeful title of minister of reintegration of temporarily occupied territories. “Mariupol is practically a city that can be called a cemetery, with buildings constructed over Ukrainian bones,” she said.

Indeed, Russia’s treatment of Mariupol and other occupied areas seems identical to current definitions of genocide — attempting to erase the culture, religion, language, indeed the very identity of a people — all while deporting tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption, and jailing tens of thousands of civilians accused of embracing Ukraine or its language.

It is little wonder Ukrainians feel their struggle is existential, with Putin openly declaring there is no such thing as a Ukrainian state. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine issued a report condemning the Russian intimidation, violence, detention, and punishment of Ukrainians under occupation.

Putin does not care.

War crimes

One of the ultimate horrors of Russian war crimes is the unspeakable treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war, especially the last holdouts in besieged Mariupol, who lasted for weeks inside the Azovstal steelworks.

They were guaranteed an honorable surrender and humane prison conditions by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which then did little to prevent them from being delivered to pure hell.

Prosecutor General Kostin spoke to me at length about the treatment of detainees and POWs and how it violates international laws of warfare. More than 160 torture chambers and places of detention were discovered in liberated territory. Mostly the goal was to eliminate community leaders or anyone who could resist Russian rule.

But the methods of torture used bear close resemblance to the Nazi torture chambers in World War II. Nothing is too ugly or disgusting. And as the U.N. report detailed, sexual violence is openly committed by Russian soldiers and interrogators against women and men as a weapon of war.

I spoke in Kyiv with Anna Sosonska, a deputy in the chief prosecutor’s office who supervises investigations of sexual crimes committed during the war, and who has been developing a process that protects women and girls from stigma if they come forward with complaints.

“The Russian military uses sexual violence as the cheapest method of terror,” she told me. “We have incidents everywhere that Russian forces are based.”

Sosonska said they have recorded incidents where Russia’s FSB intelligence agents told their victims, “You are tortured because you are Ukrainian.” As the U.N. report mentioned, more than half of the POWs from the Azovstal steelworks suffered from sexual violence, indicating it was standard operating procedure, not rogue behavior.

This is not surprising given the vituperation toward Ukrainians that dominates Russian social media and TV talk shows.

What moved me the most about talking with Sosonska was what she told me about the stories her Jewish great-grandmother told her about “the Nazi camps for Jews.”

“These stories were very similar to the conditions of Ukrainian POWs in Russian camps,” she said.

There is good reason why Ukrainians call Putin “Putler,” and why he tries to reverse this label by ludicrously calling Ukrainians “Nazis” — a lie ignorantly embraced in the U.S. by many in the MAGA camp.

Putin’s genocidal approach to Ukraine, and his cold-blooded inhumanity, make clear why Ukrainians believe he can only be stopped by force, and by Ukrainian membership in NATO. What I saw and heard in Ukraine illustrates why Trump’s embrace of Putin is reprehensible, and why Biden’s approach must be tougher.

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told me in Kyiv: “It is impossible to help Ukraine with one hand and shake Putin’s hand with the other.”

Especially when that criminal’s hand is covered in blood.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer