Russian forces are waging the war in Ukraine with increasing brutality, and now a new offensive is imminent. Historian Bastian Mathieu Siana explains how the Ukrainian army might have reacted.
t-online: Mr. Chiana, Russia is at war with Ukraine, which is fought not only with weapons, but also with words and images. Vladimir Putin wants to “discredit” the neighboring country that was attacked. What do you think that?
Bastian Matthew Siana: In terms of propaganda, Putin has been preparing for war for a long time. For years, for example, Russian television increasingly showed in-house productions of films about World War II glorifying the Red Army and its military exploits. May 9th has been upgraded to ever new areas as a public holiday.
Bastian Mathieu SianaBorn in 1987, he has been Research Associate in the Military History/Cultural History of Violence Chair at the Historical Institute of the University of Potsdam since 2016. The historian teaches and researches German foreign policy and European integration, and writes his qualification thesis on the history of the Schengen Agreement. He is a co-author of the book.bloody abstinence; Germany’s role in the Syrian conflictwhich was released in 2021.
But at present, the Russian troops are no longer fighting against the National Socialist Wehrmacht, but against Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin exploits and turns history. Thus, during and after World War II, Ukrainian nationalists fought against the Soviet Union. Now, Russian propaganda claims that Ukraine is “again” under the control of a Nazi conspiracy, controlled by the West, that threatens Russia. Kremlin propaganda talks about “de-Nazification”, but the goal is “de-Ukrainization”.
So Russia wants to “eliminate” this alleged threat and “liberate” Ukraine. But how do the photos from Bucha fit into this, since many civilian deaths were found after the withdrawal of Russian troops? Is Russia committing “genocide”, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said?
In considering the matter, we must think equally of political intent and military execution and make a distinction between them. Genocide or genocide are both political and legal terms. On the other hand, the goal is to destabilize the international community and mobilize help. The terms have been used recently, for example in Kosovo in 1999 or in relation to the Yazidis in 2014, as a reason for Western intervention.
It makes sense to involve the ICC and investigate crimes in order to be able to legally prove genocide. Russia wants to dissolve Ukraine in its current form – and by force. But Putin’s plans go much further than that. Because he also wants to destroy Ukrainian culture and identity.
From Putin’s point of view, there is no such thing as a Ukrainian identity. As silly as this may sound.
right. Then the question arises about the impact of these goals and political declarations on military practice. Were Russian soldiers given written orders to kill all or most of the Ukrainians? There is no evidence yet that Russia is waging this war of annihilation in a structurally organized manner.
But how do you explain Bucha’s death?
That’s a good question, we don’t know enough about what exactly happened in this place. But the fact is that the number of war crimes committed by Russian forces is increasing. Perhaps the situational element, which cannot be ignored in hostilities, plays a major role.
Please explain in more detail.
A scenario to explain the escalation of violence in Bucha and elsewhere would be as follows: Russian troops occupied a place, there was resistance and their losses. Other factors play a role as well: the display condition is poor and there is a lack of communication. At the same time, abuse of power against civilians is common in such situations, and violence is seen as a means of order, however gruesome and criminal the consequences may be.
BUCHA: Irina Venediktova (hat), Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, looks at bodies exhumed from a mass grave. (Source: Efrem Lukatsky / AP / dpa)
The question now is why no one within the Russian armed forces has prevented or stopped these crimes. There is another important structural component: the culture of violence in the Russian army is very different from that of Western armies such as the German army. We can also see this in the constant bombing of civilian buildings.
Now critics object that US soldiers have committed war crimes in Iraq, for example.
There is a big difference between the US armed forces and the Russian army. When US soldiers commit crimes, legal authorities investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. Nor is there a conscious determination of the limits that are required, encouraged, or permitted. It is different in Russia. According to the OSCE report, Ukrainian soldiers have also committed war crimes in some cases, although the type and scope have been estimated to be much smaller.
In addition, the Ukrainian authorities are investigating. Therefore, the Russian culture of violence and escalation of violence play a major role in war crimes. As historians, we are more reluctant to use terms such as genocide or war of extermination, but at the same time we have to take seriously the assessment of the Ukrainian and American presidents that the number and type of war crimes are taking on new dimensions.
Now, the Russian war as a whole has become famous for its brutality, and not only since the attack on Ukraine. Is terrorism against the civilian population intentional?
Despite numerous war crimes, there is no clear evidence of a strategically designed terrorist campaign against the Ukrainian civilian population. At first, the protests of Ukrainian civilians were accepted. However, this is starting to change more and more. There were also numerous reports of rape. Since sexual violence as a method of warfare has often not played a role in reporting, discussing this type of escalation of violence now more extensively is a major step forward.
The Ukrainians defended themselves against the first Russian attack with greater success than expected. Now a new Russian offensive in the east and south of the country is imminent. Will Ukraine be resilient?
The Kremlin appears to be trying to crush Ukraine in a war of materials and attrition. It remains to be seen if this strategy can be successful. Individual Russian columns are already being successfully attacked by the Ukrainians. Much depends on how the Ukrainian army operates in general. Are the Russians allowed to advance into the depths of space to ambush them again and expose them to supply problems, or are they trying to defend the region more stringently?
Either way, Ukraine doesn’t need clever advice from historians, but whatever blinks and flashes, lest it succumb to Russian supremacy or see large parts of its army isolated in the east of the country.
The Ukrainian defenders of the besieged city of Mariupol in the south of the country are already in this situation. They hid in an old industrial complex, essentially a steel mill.
It seems that the fighting in Mariupol is gradually coming to an end. And no wonder: the defenders have long been out of supplies. One has to hope that in the event of a possible surrender, Ukrainian soldiers will be treated fairly. I am very worried about that.
Some observers have drawn comparisons with the 1942 fighting of the Red October Factory during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II.
Steelworks, like complexes like this in general, lends itself to this because it is a highly defensible structure. However, these battles are often attributed to a high symbolic power. Even before the outbreak of the current war, Mariupol was a symbol of the resistance. Because the city did not fall into the hands of pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. Also for this reason, regular Ukrainian units and the Azov paramilitary regiment will fight for as long as possible.
So, one of the reasons why the defenders of Mariupol are fighting so persistently is to set an example for the rest of the country?
Definitely. Your example serves as an inspiration to other advocates. However, the desperate struggle for Mariupol also shows how important it is to provide additional aid by Western countries. This must be done quickly and comprehensively, without becoming a direct party to the war. After all, the more military resources it gives Ukraine, the better it can defend itself and prevent Russian war crimes.
Mr. Chiana, thank you very much for the interview.