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'Terror bombing': Why is Russia targeting civilians in Ukraine?

A woman holds a baby in a bomb shelter in in Mariupol, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.
A woman holds a baby in a bomb shelter in in Mariupol, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Copyright Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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Moscow denies attacking Ukrainian civilians, but the recent torrent of strikes on Kyiv suggest a concerted strategy with clear objectives.


Russian missiles and drones rained down on the Ukrainian capital 17 times in May. That's equivalent to a near non-stop rate of once every two days. 

While Moscow was hit by a rare attack on Tuesday, Russia's relentless strikes point to a concerted campaign to bombard Ukrainian civilians. But why do this?

The Kremlin denies deliberately targeting civilians - which can be considered a war crime under international law - however the UN estimated in May that more than 24,000 non-combatants had been killed since fighting began last February. 

Russian strikes have also been documented against hospitals, schools, maternity wardstheatres - the grim list goes on. 

"It's terror bombing," Dr Jade McGlynn, Research Fellow in War Studies at King's College London, told Euronews. "The purpose is to make Ukrainians feel unsafe and place them under considerable psychological pressure."

"It's terrorism."

Studies link prolonged exposure to war stress, including being bombed, shot at or displaced, with higher rates of PTSD and depression, though the true cost of trauma can be difficult to quantify.   

"Aerial strikes in Ukraine are taking a huge toll on civilians’ lives," said Achille Després, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, in a statement sent to Euronews. 

"People, including children, have to seek shelter and spend considerable amounts of time in underground areas like parking lots or metro stations with air raid sirens ringing."

"It is difficult to overstate the physical and mental fatigue this situation generates," he added.

Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
erhiy Kralya, a civilian injured during shelling by Russian forces, rests after surgery at a hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on 11 March 2022.Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

Behind Russia's "terror" campaign lies a clear objective, says McGlynn. 

"The ultimate intention is to break the will of the population so that they will at some point give in and accept Russia," she explained, claiming it was personally "directed" by the Russian President. 

"Putin believes the West will give up and Ukrainians will just be grateful for an end to the terror."

Blitz spirit

There were doubts this strategy would work, however. 

"The Russians are making the same error advocates of civilian bombardment have usually made including British and Americans in World War II," said Charles Maier, Professor of History at Harvard University. 


"Namely that attacking civilian targets will demoralise a population and thereby compel their government to surrender."

"It didn't work in the Second World War; indeed it often backfired, and that seems to be what's happening now."

Both sides in World War II bombed civilians believing it would cause morale to collapse and pressure leaders to sue for peace. 

German raids on Britain's urban centres, especially London, are remembered as having steeled public resistance with a "Blitz spirit", though there would have been more ambiguity at the time. 


Air attacks by both Russia and Ukraine have intensified amid a stalemate on the battlefield, but Moscow's strategy is far from new. 

"Civilians have always been targeted in all of Russia's wars," said McGlynn. "It's long been understood that civilians are collateral damage."

"They've never had much care for individual human life."

Ahead of the Second Chechen War in 1999, Russia launched a devastating bombing campaign against breakaway Chechnya, reducing vast areas to rubble and forcing at least 100,000 to flee their homes.


Russian airstrikes have also hammered rebel-held areas in Syria's ongoing civil war, with Human Rights Watch describing them as "reckless, indiscriminate and deliberately targeting civilians". 

In Ukraine, McGlynn says Russia's willingness to indiscriminately bombard civilian areas stems from a colonial view of the country. 

"For Russia, there are two types of Ukrainians: The good little brother/ sort of sidekick who speaks Russian... and the bad Ukrainians who embrace Ukrainian identity."

"That's who they want to destroy". 


Ukraine and Russia shared close ties, with both countries once part of the USSR project and past Russian empires. Ukraine's history is littered with uprisings against Russian rule and catastrophes instigated by anti-Ukrainian policies, such as the Holodomor famine. 

"Sometimes when you read Western media you get the impression the Russian army are complete idiots. But I think this leads to complacency because they're not," McGlynn continued. 

"The problem is Russia invaded Ukraine with a completely insane and unrealistic view of Ukrainian society based on an imperialistic belief that the country doesn't really matter." 

"One of the reasons why this invasion will fail is Moscow did not understand how resilient Ukraine is and how attached they are to the idea of being Ukrainian."

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