Is Putin Targeting Civilians in Ukraine? What the Evidence Shows


With Ukraine claiming that Russia has committed as many as 25,000 war crimes, more than a dozen organizations are busy putting together indictments that they hope will eventually land soldiers, commanders and even Vladimir Putin in court. Newsweek examined the 25 top incidents of civilian deaths in the war. That two-month investigation has found that there is some truth to Moscow’s assertion that it is not intentionally targeting civilians. Bombing with indiscriminate effect is a war crime.

But in the 25 incidents Newsweek examined, the facts on the ground are much more muddled. Whether these incidents, totaling some 1,100 civilian deaths, are war crimes is a matter for the courts. Newsweek’s conclusion is that none of the cases unambiguously qualifies. In most incidents, the intended Russian targets were indeed military in nature.

The Office of the Prosecutor General has identified some 600 Russian war crimes suspects, almost all of them soldiers who are accused of everything from rape and torture to outright murder. None of this is to blame Ukraine or excuse Russia’s aggressive and unprovoked war, the behavior of its soldiers on the ground, or its style of missile and artillery warfare that in some ways has been inherently indiscriminate. Yet establishing Russian intention to actually kill civilians is difficult. Even as the United States and NATO redouble their efforts to prepare for a grand war in Europe, politicians, the media and the public ignore the destructiveness of a ground war, conflating its many unavoidable effects with «war crimes.» The mistaken belief that the civilian tragedy in Ukraine is solely the result of Russian design only makes our understanding of future wars more difficult.

What is a War Crime?

On June 27, a Russian missile slammed into the Amstor shopping center in the central industrial city of Kremenchuk, killing 21 civilians and injuring another 100. The general rules, as contained in the Geneva Conventions and other treaties and agreements, revolve around the obligation to distinguish between military and civilian objects. «Even where a military target exists, using disproportionate force while knowing that the strike will likely cause death or injury to civilians or damage to civilian structures is a war crime,» says David Sheffer, the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. What is more, while minimizing civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects is a fundamental obligation, it is not absolute.

A civilian object such as a supermarket that is being used by the armed forces can become a legitimate military target. Even Russia’s own military manual relating to the law of armed conflict says that «all types of weapons of an indiscriminate character or that cause excessive injury or suffering» are prohibited. This principle is important, especially when Russia is using obsolete and unreliable missiles, such as the massive 1960’s era Kh-22 missile that hit the supermarket in Kremenchuk. After the supermarket attack, Moscow said the missile was aimed at «hangars with armament and munitions delivered by USA and European countries at Kremenchug road machinery plant.» On this point, most observers and investigators agree, Russia is lying.

Russia claimed that the fire at the supermarket was caused by flying debris coming from the facility, but post-strike satellite imagery clearly shows a crater where the missile fell directly on a corner of the market. Russia’s claims in response to accusations of war crimes, including at the Kremenchuk supermarket, are almost comical. Apparently not content to say that Kremenchuk was a tragic accident, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitry Polansky called the civilian deaths a «provocation» by Ukraine, a staged event. Obviously Russian intelligence is relying on more than Google maps in choosing what to bomb, but there is some basis for Russia’s claims, however disingenuous.

A number of investigations have debunked Russia’s various propaganda talking points, but just because Russia is deceitful and craven in its explanations doesn’t mean the attack was in fact a war crime. That turns out to be a difficult question to answer, because short of testimony from the Russian bomber crewmembers who delivered the missile, investigators must look to evidence on the ground, and to Russia’s overall practices to see whether or not an attack on a supermarket fits into a pattern with other attacks. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, human rights monitors have been scrupulous in documenting Russian conduct. On the first day of attacks, for example, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Russia of damaging a hospital in Vuhledar , a coal mining town 50 miles north of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch focused on the missile’s cluster bomb warhead with 50 submunitions, pointing out the international convention banning the use of such weapons. A photo of the nose cone of the missile, widely posted on social media, was the basis for determining the type of weapon used. Amnesty International said the Russian ballistic missile strike on the hospital was «verified» by its Evidence Lab. «The Russian military has shown a blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas,» said Agnès Callamard, the organization’s Secretary General.

Tochka is owned by both Russia and Ukraine, and though observers seem content to assume that Russia attacked Vuhledar, U. Ukraine, on the other hand, is known to have fired Tochka missiles on the first day against a target in Kirovske in occupied Donetsk. Over the next 72 hours, Ukraine fired more Tochkas at Russian forces and against two airbases located in Russia itself, one at Millerovo and the other at Taganrog. On March 1, Ukraine also hit a Russian naval ship docked in Berdiansk harbor with a Tochka missile. There is no photographic evidence that places it in Vuhledar, nor is there anything that proves that it is Russian.

The Ukraine General Staff did not report the town or its surroundings attacked until March 13, raising the question whether it was an intended Russian target on February 24, when all of Russia’s long-range attacks were highly choreographed. On March 11, the independent investigative collective Bellingcat stated that Vuhledar was the only «confirmed example of this particular cluster munition being used» in Ukraine, further raising questions regarding who fired the missile that landed there. In other words, it was most likely a Ukrainian Tochka missile fired somewhere to the east, which failed in flight and landed in Vuhledar, causing the damage and deaths. On the night of June 30, another Russian Kh-22 missile hit a multi-story apartment building and two «recreation centers» in the village of Serhiivka on the southern Black Sea coast.

The attack killed 22 civilians and injured another 40, the largest number of victims among all Russian attacks in the Odesa region. In his video address that night, President Zelensky denounced the Serhiivka strike as «conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or a coincidental missile strike». Russia responded with its usual misinformation. «In Odesa, the Kyiv regime is preparing another sophisticated provocation to accuse the Russian Armed Forces of killing civilians and purposefully destroying civilian infrastructure,» Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev said in a Kremlin press release.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters that the attack in Serhiivka was intentional, that Russia targeted an ammunition depot there. «Seized the missile fragments, took measurements to determine the flight path, obtained videos from surveillance cams». The highly unreliable Kh-22 missile that fell in the village is the same missile used in the supermarket attack in Kremenchuk. This 32-foot long missile, designed in the late 1950’s, is intended for long-range attacks against naval vessels, specifically aircraft carriers.

It is estimated, under the best of conditions, that a Kh-22 type missile will land within three miles of its intended target, while the updated Kh-32 should land somewhere within 1.5 miles of a desired aimpoint.

After the Kremenchuk attack, British military intelligence reported that «these weapons are…unsuitable for precision strikes and have almost certainly repeatedly caused civilian casualties in recent weeks.» The Kh-22 is responsible in Serhiivka, just as it was in Kremenchuk, but there is no evidence that the Russian attack on civilians was intentional. International law finds «wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity» a war crime. A recent United Nations report on war crimes found that «the level of civilian casualties and the level of damage to civilian infrastructure in each case…suggest numerous failures to take constant care to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations, and to take all feasible precautions in attack.» But it stops short of accusing Russia of having committed war crimes in its bombing. Using the Kh-22 missile in attacks on ground targets might be considered war crimes if Russian commanders or decision-makers were warned of the missile’s inaccuracy and unreliability and chose to order their use anyway.

Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for comment about Serhiivka but did not receive a response. Ukrainian military barracks and depots are located on the periphery of many cities and towns, and at least 10 of Ukraine’s major airports are joint civilian and military facilities. Ukrainian forces, moreover, especially National Guard and territorial defense units, are operating from within urban areas. Ukraine is not to blame for its geography, of course, but it’s inaccurate to apply the term «war crime» to any incident in which civilian objects are damaged or civilians are killed.

There were Russian attacks in all of these places, with numerous civilian deaths and significant damage. It’s easy to assume that the city and its residents were the target of attack. But none of the accusations of war crimes mention that Zhytomyr is also a military town, home to the 95th Air Assault Brigade, Ukraine’s Air Assault Command, two major military schools and the 199th Training Center, the 148th Artillery Battalion, a regional headquarters, and major National Guard and territorial defense units. Newsweek’s request to the Ministry for comment on those claims was declined, but the Russian embassy at the United Nations provided a military advisor to address the subject on condition of anonymity.

Three weeks after Newsweek requested evidence of those alleged incidents, the Russian military advisor produced what he said was proof of such Ukrainian practices. He claimed the photos were taken in Severodonetsk on February 27, and that they show a Ukrainian artillery unit firing from a soccer field, as well as Ukrainian armored vehicles hiding near civilian buildings. Though the photos can be geolocated and appear genuine, it’s important to note that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published one of the same pictures suggesting that it showed a Russian artillery unit.

‘Confused children’

Since the Russians withdrew from northern Ukraine, Kyiv has been burying the dead and counting the toll. The Kyiv area governor reports that the region has determined that 1,346 civilians have been killed in his region since the beginning of the war, with another 300 still missing. This region includes the town of Bucha, where 403 died, according to the latest estimate. Another 300 are estimated to have died close to the battlefield in artillery strikes and as a result of tank fire.

That means that between February 24 when Russia invaded and April 1 when the last Russian troops withdrew from the region, some 300 died as a result of missile strikes and bombing. Bombing is the most observable and therefore the most frequently reported event in war, which creates the impression that it is not only the cause of most civilian casualties, but also the main cause. Focusing on the wrong sources both fails to hold Russia fairly accountable while also missing the opportunity to learn how best to protect civilians in conflict. In every one of the 25 bombing incidents that Newsweek examined, ambiguities and questions arose regarding the intended target, the weapon used, Ukraine’s role, and Moscow’s intentions.

There is a possibility that all of them are war crimes, especially in cases of large numbers of civilian casualties relative to the military advantage gained in attacking even legitimate targets. Army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin was captured and later accused of killing a 62-year-old civilian in northeastern Ukraine as his unit was moving through the small village of Chupakhivka on the first day of the war. The Ukrainian man, Shishimarin told the court, was using his cellphone and he and his comrades feared that he was reporting the location of his unit to authorities.

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