As horrifying images and testimony have emerged from Bucha, the Ukrainian town 35 miles north-west of the capital, Kyiv, it is becoming ever more likely that Vladimir Putin has operated by a strict playbook in the north of Ukraine as with elsewhere in the country that has served him well for decades, albeit at a heavy cost to his army.
First, there are the initial errors, including the underestimation of the enemy. Putin’s attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999, was as unsuccessful as the attempt to decapitate Ukraine’s leadership in Kyiv within a few days of his 24 February invasion.
Whether born out of hubris, or a failure of his inner circle to be frank with their leader about the limits of the Russian capability, both in Chechnya and in Ukraine, there was an overwhelming belief in the superiority of the country’s armed forces which saw them try to drive long convoys of armor directly towards their targets and into repeated ambush by their nimble foes.
When Russian paratroopers dropped into Hostomel airport, on the outskirts of Bucha, they had initially disappeared from view, according to locals. They were supposed to be swiftly advancing on Kyiv as part of an attempt to knock out Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government and install a quisling pro-Moscow alternative.
Instead, the Russian forces faced heavy resistance, and had to fight hard in Bucha and elsewhere, north and north east of Kyiv, just to keep the initial ground they had secured. The Russians had reappeared after a few days, residents said, with fatal consequences.
Which led to the brutal corrective moves that Moscow made in both Grozny and is now accused of making in various locations in Ukraine, born out of the belief that brute force through the indiscriminate use of artillery, potentially resulting in the total destruction of a city, will bring people to their knees.
The United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth in 2003 and between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians were killed during its siege. During the 2016 battle of Aleppo, Russia seized back rebel-held areas of the city for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad through a month-long aerial bombing campaign, killing men, women and children.
In Ukraine, Bucha is the latest, but Chernihiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv came before, enduring similar treatment. Firstly, it came to communications blackout and the cutting off of the essentials of electricity, gas and water.
What followed was the blanket bombing of civilian targets, alongside the false offer of humanitarian corridors that gave and then cruelly dashed hope.
Infrastructure was demolished, hospitals, bomb shelters and schools targeted.
Ukraine’s government has claimed that Russia is engaged in the forcible deportation of people from Mariupol to the Russian Federation. Many of those boarding coaches for Russia may not care in the first instance where they are going just as long as it is away from the hell that is that port city.
The belief is that faced with such torment, people’s will to fight will collapse and there will be an acceptance of an alternative government, no matter how objectionable.
Assad remains in power. In Chechnya, Putin turned to the son of the chief mufti, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has since provided support for Russian forces in both Syria and Ukraine. Which comes to the final play: the normalization of the new administrations.
That requires a level of cynicism and weakness from the west that Putin has long believed is a banker: that the US and the EU will draw a blind eye to what has happened given the intractability of the new normal.
In the case of Ukraine, however, it is not at all clear that terror will prevail, with the forced regrouping of Putin’s forces east suggesting that he may have given up on his initial ambition of total capitulation. He may instead seek to establish himself in the east, if he can batter down the resistance there. But that will still be a hard slog not least if the economy at home is tanking due to the west’s economic sanctions. The other fly in Putin’s ointment then, is that perhaps the west may this time stay true to its claims of solidarity with Kyiv and escalate its sanctions regime. The names of Bucha, Mariupol and Kharkiv, may well become a rallying cry for Zelenskiy to that goal.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism