Is Russian Brutality Toward Civilians Actually Unique?

What is presented as a uniquely “Russian” type of warfare, with high civilian casualties, is not dissimilar from attacks by the U.S. and its allies. Let us examine the facts that challenge our narratives in addition to those that confirm them.

The New York Times has an article attempting to explain to readers why the Russian military is committing indiscriminate atrocities in Ukraine. The Times tells us that Russia’s “experience in a string of wars led to the conclusion that attacking civilian populations was not only acceptable but militarily sound,” and even calls this a “Russian Way of War.” The article cites Russia’s experience in three previous wars (Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria) and claims that these experiences inform a kind of “playbook” in which Russian attacks on civilians have become  “increasingly standard practice.” The message of the piece is unmistakably that while we in the West may care about human rights and civilian lives, Russia has become a brutal country that is willing to commit war crimes in order to achieve its military objectives. The article even provides chilling quotes from a Russian politician and military analyst who appears to argue in the most cold-blooded way that the ends justify the means: 

They also reflect the circumstances of an authoritarian state with few allies, enabling the Kremlin to ignore and even embrace revulsion at its military conduct — or so Russian leaders seem to believe. “​​Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties,” Alexei Arbatov, a prominent Russian military strategist and at the time a federal legislator, wrote in 2000, during Russia’s second war in Chechnya. “The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively,” Mr. Arbatov wrote, adding that international horror at Russian actions should be “discounted.”

Arbatov’s words are disturbing. When I read them, I wondered how anyone could possibly say something so psychopathic, and I was curious about what the context for them might be. The link goes to a paper published by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies on the subject of “how the Yugoslav war destroyed remaining hopes for genuine security partnership and military cooperation between Russia and NATO.” The quotes cited by the New York Times appear in the executive summary. Below is the full passage they are taken from, with the quotes the Times used in bold: 

The use of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft and missiles against Serbia on March 24, 1999 ended the post–Cold War phase of international affairs. The Serbs conducted ethnic cleansing against the Albanians on an unprecedented scale, but these attacks escalated after the initiation of the NATO air campaign. The attack on Serbia suddenly removed a Russian taboo against the use of military force that followed the first war in Chechnya of 1994–1996. NATO’s military action was a final humiliation and a “spit in the face” for Russia, which more than ever before demonstrated the Western arrogance of power and its willingness to ignore Russian interests. Russia has learned many lessons from Kosovo. Above all, the end justifies the means. The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively. Negotiations are of dubious value and should be used as a cover for military action. International law and human suffering are of secondary significance in achieving the goal. Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties. Foreign public opinion and the position of Western governments are to be discounted if Russian interests are at stake. 

Now, I have to say, I don’t think any honest person, reading Arbatov’s full monograph, can claim the New York Times represented him fairly. Arbatov’s paper is actually one all Americans should read, because he makes the case that NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 had a very substantial effect on Russian policy and thinking. While the quotes in the New York Times make it appear as if Arbatov might be endorsing massive devastation himself, what he is actually arguing is that NATO’s disregard of international law and human rights led Russia to conclude that “force is the most effective problem solver,” and that Western hypocrisy made Russian leaders think they had no reason to care about Western opinion.

The New York Times article on how Russia’s brutality developed does not mention Arbatov’s argument. In fact, even though it’s focused on history, it does not mention the Kosovo war at all, despite the fact that Arbatov argues this was decisive in causing Russian leaders to take a more aggressive posture out of a sense of humiliation. Arbatov writes:

The NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia has left the Russian people with a vivid image of a possible future scenario—with Russia on the receiving end of surgical strikes against industrial, infrastructure, and military targets… [T]he NATO alliance apparently changed its strategy to focus on the destruction of Yugoslav industrial assets, infrastructure, administrative, and communications facilities. In this pogrom against a defenseless country from an altitude of 10,000 meters, NATO air power was highly “successful” (although the famous precision–guided weapons sometimes hit the wrong targets: embassies, like that of China, and even the wrong countries—Macedonia and Albania). Seven weeks of bombarding Yugoslavia destroyed 100 per cent of the oil refineries, 70 per cent of the defense industry, 60 per cent of the fuel storage facilities, 100 per cent of the electrical line transformers, and 40 per cent of the TV and radio stations—including the Belgrade TV center, where 16 civilian employees were killed by missiles. In addition, 68 bridges were destroyed, and 70 per cent of the roads and 50 per cent of the railroads were put out of action. Altogether 1,500 people were killed—two–thirds of them civilians—2,500 lost their homes, and two million became jobless. Other collateral damage included 86 historic monuments, and more than 300 schools, hospitals, etc. … Because NATO proclaimed its right to attack a sovereign state to achieve NATO’s own aims, Russia was all the more entitled to use force on its own territory. Russia would make it clear that no one would be allowed to intervene in Russian domestic affairs. The West would be taught that Russia is not Yugoslavia. This is how Russia thinks today.

Now, if we are to probe the question posed by the New York Times—how did Russia become so uniquely brutal toward civilians—surely the theory that NATO behavior influenced Russia’s own is an explanation that needs to be considered, even if it is rejected. (And even if “NATO Made Us Do It” is not an acceptable justification for anything.) The explanation offered by Arbatov is: the West’s willingness to flout international law and recklessly attack civilians led Russia to conclude that there was no longer any reason not to fight dirty.

It is true that the NATO bombing of Kosovo was both illegal and reckless in endangering civilians, as explained in this Fordham International Law Journal article. As legal scholar David Wippman writes:

NATO’s decision to engage in large-scale military action without prior Security Council authorization raised significant doubts about the status of the law governing the use of force and the viability of United Nations primacy in matters of international peace and security. Second, NATO’s high-altitude bombing campaign, conducted without a single NATO combat casualty but with significant civilian casualties within the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] called into question the appropriate relationship between means and ends in an intervention designed to save lives. 

In other words, NATO flagrantly violated the UN charter and launched reckless attacks against civilian targets. A 75-page Amnesty International report on the bombings concluded that “NATO forces did commit serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians.” Despite the fact that “NATO forces are also under a legal obligation to warn civilians of imminent attacks whenever possible… NATO officials told Amnesty International in Brussels that as a general policy they chose not to issue warnings, for fear that this might endanger the crew of attacking aircraft.” Human Rights Watch said that “of the 500 or so Yugoslav civilians killed in Serbia and Kosovo by NATO bombs, half died because of NATO violations of laws and practices on protecting civilians.” NATO was unapologetic; when it bombed the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia, killing 16 people— “nearly all of them technicians, security workers and makeup artists”—NATO said that “strikes against TV transmitters and broadcast facilities are part of our campaign to dismantle the FRY propaganda machinery,” with Tony Blair commenting that “these television stations are part of the apparatus and power of Milosevic” and “we are entirely justified as Nato allies in damaging and taking on those targets.” This legitimizing of attacks on non-military targets is what Arbatov says led Russia to conclude that the ends justify the means. 

Aftermath of a U.S. drone strike on a house in eastern Yemen, 2013, in an attack that killed 13 civilians

But to read the New York Times, one would think that indiscriminate killing of civilians was, in their words, simply the Russian Way of War. The article suggests that the explanation for Russia’s revolting conduct in Ukraine is that Russia is an authoritarian state whose government has realized it can abandon all moral standards. In a remarkable passage, however, the Times acknowledges that the central message of the piece, namely that Russian warfare methods have been uniquely deadly for civilians, is actually completely false. The Times says:

The United States, of course, also frequently kills civilians in war, in drone and other airstrikes whose toll the U.S. treats as a regrettable but acceptable cost. Though the intention behind this strategy differs from Russia’s, the distinction may be of little significance for the dead… This does not mean that widely allied democracies like the United States necessarily kill fewer civilians in war. American air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed large numbers of civilians. Under an Obama administration policy, the U.S. launched drone strikes on groups of people merely because they fit certain profiles, sometimes mistakenly striking weddings or funerals. The U.S. has sometimes used indiscriminate tools of war, for example dropping 1,200 cluster bombs, which much of the world has banned for their danger to civilians, in its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. strikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, then held by the Islamic State, killed scores, with a single errant bomb claiming 70 civilians. American officials stress that they strain to avoid civilian casualties, which they know anger local populations they hope to win over. Still, the U.S. has long maintained a strategy, centering on air power and drone strikes, that it knows brings a significant likelihood of killing civilians, even covering up embarrassing incidents. Questions of how to parse the relative morality of these two approaches — deliberately killing civilians versus choosing a strategy that is known to bring it about — may ultimately matter more to the perpetrators of these strategies than to their victims. According to top-level estimates by Airwars, a nonprofit group, the Russian air campaign in Syria killed 6,398 civilians, whereas that by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq killed 13,244. [Note that “As of April 2021, more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war” in Afghanistan, and total civilian deaths in Iraq are estimated to be well into the hundreds of thousands.]

In other words, both the U.S. and Russia have caused the violent deaths of civilians in huge numbers. The U.S. has accused Russia of war crimes for using cluster munitions1 in Ukraine even though we use them ourselves. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN even got on her high horse about how cluster munitions were “banned by the Geneva Convention.” Her remarks were later edited—not only are cluster munitions not banned by the Geneva Convention, but one reason they’re not universally prohibited is that the “United States fought against the creation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and is not among the 110 nations that have ratified the treaty.” (Russia and Ukraine have not ratified it either.) 

The Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals was an outrageous war crime, but here’s another headline from Syria, brought to you by Amnesty International: “Unprecedented investigation reveals US-led coalition killed more than 1,600 civilians in Raqqa ‘death trap.’” If we want to talk about the bombing of medical facilities specifically, the United States bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan, a maternity hospital in Baghdad, and a medicine factory in Sudan. (The Intercept helpfully compiles some of the other horrors.) “Okay,” one might say, “but these are mere regrettable isolated incidents. The Russian targeting of hospitals was deliberate.” But the same is true of Saudi Arabia’s systematic bombing of healthcare facilities in Yemen, of which over 70 have been damaged or destroyed. Where is the outrage over the Saudi Way of War? Has there been a peep about the fact that the U.S. supplies the weapons that allow Saudi Arabia to starve and massacre Yemenis? As the Brookings Institute documents, the Biden administration has quietly backed off its earlier attempt to discontinue support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and “in practice the U.S. remains a staunch patron of Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman has not been treated as a pariah as Biden promised.” In fact, now we’re practically begging the Saudis for oil, which we need in order to help us hold Russia accountable for its crimes against humanity. 

Inside a Médecins Sans Frontières trauma hospital in Afghanistan after a U.S. airstrike that killed 42 people

The New York Times, realizing that any honest presentation of the evidence makes U.S. actions look exactly as deadly to civilians as those of Russia, draws a pretty feeble distinction: when we kill civilians, we don’t mean to, so while the effects might be the same (or we might even have killed many more innocent people), our intentions are more noble. As the Times notes, this distinction does not mean very much to people who watch their loved ones die gruesome and agonizing deaths in front of them. How meaningful are “good intentions” when the results are the same or even worse? If we assume that the U.S. rains death on Afghan farmers because it does not care enough about their lives to bother verifying whether they’re farmers or terrorists, is it really acting less homicidally than if it bombed the farmers on purpose to achieve some desired end? If I fire a gun wildly into a classroom full of children, how much of a defense is it to say that I was not deliberately aiming at any of them? When the United States dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country on Earth, is it a defense to say that it simply wasn’t thinking about the fact that the unexploded bombs would still be killing children in 2017? Noam Chomsky often says that the correct moral standard to use is: people are responsible for the predictable consequences of their actions. If you knew or should have known that an action would have some result, then you’re as responsible as if you intended it. 

Aftermath of the U.S. Christmas Day bombing of North Vietnam, 1972

Honest acknowledgement of U.S. history makes it almost laughable to read about the development of the Russian Way Of War.. For instance, here is the Times writing about the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the same article under discussion: 

In the valleys around Kabul, the Russians undertook a series of large operations engaging hundreds of tanks, mobilizing significant means, using bombs, rockets, napalm, and even, once gas, destroying all in their path,”a 1984 chronicle of the war recounted. … These costly defeats instilled a reluctance to expose ground troops to direct combat, whose numbers had also shrunk with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Moscow compensated by using its predominant tools of war — the tanks and artillery it had amassed to match NATO — against the civilian populations it now saw, in counterinsurgency campaigns, as the enemy. … In some cases, Russian officers declared certain villages to be “safe zones,” then blanketed them in so-called fuel-air bombs banned under the Geneva Conventions, killing scores at a time.

Replace the names and nearly everything described holds true about the United States in Vietnam, where we, too, adopted the philosophy that it was better to kill a large number of civilians than to risk the lives of soldiers. (“Expend shells, not men,” was the slogan, meaning in practice, Better To Blow The Shit Out of a Village Rather than Risk The Possibility of Being Shot at From It.) 

We can see here why, as Ben Burgis writes in this magazine, it is often important to engage in the practice derisively called “whataboutism.” One does not dwell on U.S. crimes in order to minimize or draw attention away from Russian ones, but because one has to evaluate U.S. conduct in order to evaluate any thesis claiming the existence of a distinctively Russian brutality or a Russian Way of War that is more horrifying than our own. If we ourselves are not conforming to the standard we demand of Russia, then this might explain why Russia feels entitled to completely ignore Western outrage about its behavior.

This is not the first time this magazine has tried to draw attention to U.S. conduct in other contexts while discussing the war in Ukraine, and I’d like to emphasize why it’s important to do so. It is not because I hate America or want to shift blame. It is, rather, because I am horrified by what is being done to Ukraine and I want to have standards of humane conduct by countries that are actually adhered to. Arbatov alleges that there was once a possibility for Russian amicable partnership with NATO countries, but that NATO’s lack of interest in obeying international law led Russian leaders to feel humiliated and abandon their commitment to obeying those laws themselves. I do not claim that what Arbatov argues about the sources of Russian decision-making is true, but I do think we have to discuss whether it could be true, because if he is right, then in conjunction with demanding better behavior by Russia, we should commit to better behavior by our own country. If we want accountability for war crimes, we have to accept that there should be accountability for our own as well, plus those of our allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet when the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court started looking into crimes committed by the U.S. in Afghanistan, the Trump administration revoked his visa and authorized sanctions against the ICC, with White House National Security Advisor John Bolton saying

“If the [International Criminal Court] comes after us, Israel or other US allies, we will not sit quietly. […] We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the US financial system, and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system.”

This might be a rather extreme formulation, and the Biden administration has since lifted the visa restriction on ICC personnel, but rejection of the ICC’s jurisdiction is still a bipartisan affair in this country. As Foreign Policy documents, the “for more than 20 years, Democratic and Republican administrations have agreed on one thing about the International Criminal Court: The Hague-based tribunal has no business investigating or prosecuting American forces for serious crimes, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any future conflict, because the United States never ratified the treaty establishing it.” Amusingly enough, Foreign Policy says that some American politicians might be warming up to the ICC now, out of a desire to see Russia prosecuted over Ukraine. In other words, if we’re the ones committing the crimes, we reject the rule of law, but if others are behaving badly, suddenly we’re all about it. This is the most unprincipled stance conceivable.

The United States has killed vast numbers of civilians both deliberately and through negligence. In World War II, we developed a comfort with indiscriminate bombing that was certain to lead to horrific losses of life, and we have kept it up, from the napalming of Vietnamese villages to drone strikes on wedding parties. The U.S. and the Soviet Union both spent the Cold War developing plans and weapons meant to completely eliminate each other’s entire civilian populations within minutes. One could write an article about the American Way of War, trying to explain our unique national brutality, that would be just as persuasive as the Times piece on Russians’ comfort with atrocities.

Here is the truth about war: there are no good, clean wars. That does not mean that all wrongdoing is equally bad, or that we should give up trying to draw moral distinctions between parties engaged in war, but we are brazen hypocrites if we are outraged by Russia’s crimes in Ukraine without being similarly moved by the horrific conduct of our own country and its allies.

What we have to understand is that over the course of the 20th century, every major power was dragged into depravity. We have not yet faced up to this. Powerful countries that waged war always sought excuses for their conduct—Vietnam was a righteous fight against communism, so it was necessary to destroy towns in order to save them. Putin thinks NATO’s bombing of Serbia somehow made war crimes okay. Everyone thinks the other side is comprised of depraved monsters, and wars happen in part because both parties refuse to look at themselves through the other’s eyes and engage in some critical self-reflection. If we are going to end war forever—and we must before it ends us—we are going to need to commit ourselves to the Golden Rule: do not commit crimes that you would object to others committing against you. 

PHOTOS (clockwise from top right): A Yugoslavian man next to the wreckage of his apartment building after NATO bombed it, 1999; a man next to the wreckage of his bookshop after Israel bombed it, 2021; a man next to the wreckage of his house after the U.S. bombed it, Fallujah, 2004; a Shinto gate left standing in Nagasaki in 1945 after the U.S. became the first country to use nuclear weapons on civilian populations.

  1. big bombs that release lots of little bombs—adorably named “bomblets”—in order to kill lots and lots of people in the most horrible possible way 

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