For four gruesome weeks, Vladimir Putin’s military has bombarded schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and other civilian targets across Ukraine. These attacks, documented in photos, videos, and reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have killed or wounded thousands of civilians. Last Wednesday, the United States classified the Russian atrocities as war crimes. But they’re also part of Putin’s larger strategy: state terrorism.
Russia’s conduct in Ukraine fits its own definitions of terrorism. As originally enacted in 1994, Russia’s criminal code defined terrorism as “bombings, arson, and other acts causing a threat to human life, major property loss, and other negative consequences committed against public safety or with the aim of influencing decision-making of the government authorities.” The law was revised in 1997 to include reference to “the aim of spreading fear among the population.” It was revised again in 1998 and 2006, after which it defined an “act of terrorism” as “perpetrating an explosion, arson or other actions connected with intimidating the population” to influence public officials.
Yet Putin has always seen himself as an anti-terrorist. When al Qaeda struck the United States in 2001, a year after he became president, Putin saw the attack as an opportunity to rally the world around Russia. He called on America and other nations to join him in a global coalition against terrorism. He embraced the American slogan, “war on terrorism,” and he urged governments of all kinds to form an “international [coalition] of law and order” against the jihadist menace.
Putin vowed that the anti-terrorist coalition would never sink to the level of the terrorists. Two months after 9/11, in a speech at Russia’s embassy in Washington, D.C., he boasted that nations opposed to terrorism had refused to “use the same cruel methods” as their enemies. Four years later, in another speech commemorating 9/11, he condemned terrorists who had killed “hundreds of my fellow citizens” in “bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, in attacks against infrastructure facilities and transport.”
It’s bitterly ironic to recall those words today, as Putin’s forces bomb apartment buildings, destroy infrastructure, and kill thousands of citizens in Ukraine. But Putin never acknowledged that terrorism could be committed by states. In keeping with longstanding definitions in international relations that distinguish between acts of war and acts of terrorism, he saw governments as victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism. “The territories where civilized law is powerless become terrorist havens,” he told a European audience in October 2001. “It is from there that the threat of terrorism comes.”
This mentality—that only non-state actors could be terrorists, and that the solution to terrorism was to unite the world’s governments against them—made Putin’s “anti-terrorism” a rationale for state terror. In 2015, as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad waged a brutal civil war against Islamists and other armed factions, Putin argued that other countries should defend Assad’s regime. “The collapse of Syria’s official authorities” would “mobilize terrorists,” he warned. “It may be true that the USA have the goal to get rid of al-Assad. Our goal is to combat terrorism and to help President al-Assad gain victory over terrorism.” By opposing the anti-Assad terrorists, Putin argued, Russia’s forces were standing with the Syrian people.
Putin’s military campaign in Syria became a grisly showcase for his twisted version of anti-terrorism. A U.N. commission report found that in the city of Aleppo, during the second half of 2016, “Syrian and Russian forces carried out daily air strikes, claiming hundreds of lives and reducing hospitals, schools and markets to rubble.” The atrocities documented in the report eerily resemble what’s happening in Ukraine, including air strikes on a women’s hospital, a bread line, and buildings that were clearly marked as civilian.
The purpose of Putin’s bombardment in Aleppo wasn’t just to kill people. It was to induce capitulation. At a March 16 hearing, Marc Garlasco, a war crimes investigator who was part of the U.N.’s inquiry in Syria, told a House subcommittee that Russia is doing the same thing in Ukraine. In Syria, he explained, Putin’s and Assad’s forces “trapped the population in urban centers, surrounded them, and starved them out,” in part through “direct targeting of civilians and their foodstuffs [and] medicine.” The onslaught “began with a surrender-or-starve order,” which then escalated to “surrender-or-die.” Garlasco pointed to similar Russian tactics in Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities. “We’ve already seen food warehouses hit,” he testified. “They’re putting the screws [to] the civilian population.”
Initially, Putin’s goal in Ukraine was to topple the government. But as his army bogged down, he switched to the Aleppo strategy, apparently with the aim of extracting concessions. On March 7, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, spelled out Russia’s conditions for ending the war: Ukraine had to “recognize that Crimea is Russian territory,” “recognize that Donetsk and Luhansk are independent states,” and amend Ukraine’s constitution to rule out joining NATO or any other “bloc.” If Ukraine were to make those concessions, said Peskov, the suffering of its people would “stop in a moment.”
Peskov repeated those demands last week, after further pounding of Mariupol and other cities. Meanwhile, in interviews and press conferences, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that Ukraine had to make concessions if it hoped to end the war.
These political demands, coupled with Russia’s relentless mass killing, complete the portrait of Putin’s strategy. He’s bombing civilians and destroying property to intimidate the population and influence Ukraine’s government. By Russia’s own definition, that’s terrorism. But because Putin is the perpetrator, his regime will never acknowledge the crime. Instead, Lavrov insists that the real villains are Ukrainian “militants” who “radicalize and terrorize others” and “are trained to stage terrorist attacks.”
Putin was right when he called for a global coalition against terrorism. But today, the world’s bloodiest terrorist is Putin himself. And if, in exchange for ending this war, he extracts concessions from Ukraine, he will have succeeded.