This is What War Crimes Look Like

The leveling of Bakhmut is the latest Russian atrocity.

WaPo (“Before-and-after images of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut“):

One year ago, the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, home to some 70,000 people, was known locally for its salt mines and sparkling wine. Today, it is a symbol of Russia’s brutal and relentless war.

For months, both armies have been heavily shelling the city, as seen in video recently released by Ukraine’s military.

Ukrainian forces have been pushing back against Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries — many of them released from Russia’s prisons and sent to the front lines after only brief training — since the fall, making the battle for Bakhmut the war’s longest.

Over the weekend, Moscow claimed to have taken Bakhmut, but Kyiv denied this, saying its forces are still holding on to a small part of the city and staging counterattacks as part of a plan to encircle the area.

Most civilians have fled. Leafy green streets are now scorched landscapes, as shown in before-and-after satellite images from Maxar Technologies. The aerial imagery of Bakhmut’s approximately 10 square miles reveals how homes, schools, shops and a red-roofed theater have been flattened.

If the city has fallen to Russia — as President Vladimir Putin claims — it would be the only significant territorial gain for Moscow since last summer. For Ukrainians, Bakhmut has come to represent resistance. President Volodymyr Zelensky in December called the city “the fortress of our morale.”

The value of the city at this point is more about politics and morale than about strategy. Leaked U.S. intelligence documents showed that Washington warned Ukraine it would not be able to hold Bakhmut and urged Kyiv to abandon the fight.

NYT (“Bakhmut Is Gone: An Aerial Look at the War’s Destruction“):

Bakhmut is obliterated.

As fighting around the city in eastern Ukraine rages on, drone footage taken by The New York Times on Friday captured the scorched buildings, destroyed schools, and cratered parks that now define Bakhmut. What looks like an early-morning haze spreading across the shattered skyline is the acrid smoke that hung heavy after another night of relentless shelling.

The Russians are declaring victory in this battle, the war’s longest and bloodiest. The Ukrainians, making gains on the outskirts, say the death of the city is not the end of the campaign to drive the Russians from the ruins, just one more phase in a catastrophic war.

The notion of a “winner,” however, defies what is so clearly lost — the many lives and homes in the once peaceful city, known for its salt-mines and sparkling wine, largely reduced to ashes. A few remaining civilians moved anxiously trying to find a safe path as the Russians fought in the neighborhood where the people were taking shelter. It was not immediately possible to know who the people are, where they are going and how they survived.

In a place filled with death and destruction, signs of life are the exception. President Biden said this weekend that around 100,000 Russian soldiers were killed and wounded in the battle for Bakhmut. Ukraine also suffered grievous losses in a fight described by both sides as a “meat grinder.”

Over the past year, the Ukrainian government urged residents to evacuate the city of nearly 80,000 and by March, it estimated that only around 4,000 people remained. As Russia stepped up its bombardment, humanitarian groups found working in the city impossible. Ukrainian forces continued to offer people safe transport out as recently as two weeks ago, according to soldiers, but some residents refused to leave.

As the last Ukrainian soldiers were driven into an ever smaller area near the western entrance of the city, the Russian military turned what was once a thriving residential neighborhood into a shooting gallery.

War was always brutal and it became much more so in the industrial age, as humans invented much more efficient killing technologies. Simultaneously, though, we agreed to rules to limit harm to noncombatants and civilian infrastructure.

Russia’s war of aggression certainly violates all the rules of jus ad bellum, the conditions under which states may lawfully resort to war. Since launching the war, they have routinely violated the rules of jus in bello, failing to take reasonable measures to limit the destruction to military targets. In this case, they have obliterated a residential city with no military value, seemingly just for the hell of it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. drj says:

    While Russia is certainly guilty of a host of war crimes, I don’t think this one qualifies.

    Once civilian infrastructure is used by opposing military forces as cover, vantage points, etc., it becomes a legitimate military target.

  2. Mikey says:

    @drj: Admittedly it’s been a while since my last LOAC training, but as I recall, only the buildings used by opposing military forces are legitimate targets. Entire cities cannot be leveled with no effort to distinguish between military and civilian, and with no concern for proportionality, as Russia has done with Bakhmut and several other Ukrainian cities.

  3. Scott says:

    Long term, I’m afraid, the entire Eastern zone of Ukraine will be, for the most part, uninhabitable. It will be the Ukrainian version of the Zone Rouge in northern France.

    Zone Rouge

    The zone rouge (English: Red Zone) is a chain of non-contiguous areas throughout northeastern France that the French government isolated after the First World War. The land, which originally covered more than 1,200 square kilometres (460 sq mi), was deemed too physically and environmentally damaged by conflict for human habitation. Rather than attempt to immediately clean up the former battlefields, the land was allowed to return to nature. Restrictions within the Zone Rouge still exist today, although the control areas have been greatly reduced.

    The zone rouge was defined just after the war as “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.[1]

    Under French law, activities such as housing, farming, or forestry were temporarily or permanently forbidden in the Zone Rouge, because of the vast amounts of human and animal remains, and millions of items of unexploded ordnance contaminating the land. Some towns and villages were never permitted to be rebuilt after the war.

    Many parts are still uninhabitable after 100 years.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @drj: @Mikey: There’s also quite a bit of debate in LOAC circles as to whether jus ad bellum and jus in bello should be separated or taken in totality. In my view, the fact that the actions are taken pursuant to an illegal invasion compounds the crime. Indeed, while I’m sure Ukrainian forces are also committing atrocities against Russians, I consider it a lesser crime because they’ve been invaded and their civilian populations targeted. Again, that’s not a universal view [PDF].

  5. drj says:


    Bakhmut was slowly destroyed over the course of many months of fighting. Fighting that took place street by street, building by building, and – sometimes – room by room.

    Not the same thing as preemptively leveling an entire city.

  6. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    whether jus ad bellum and jus in bello should be separated or taken in totality.

    If these two weren’t separate, all military personnel who participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be war criminals.

  7. Rick DeMent says:

    Is there anything left in the city still standing to be “captured”? I realize the picture is of a single block or two but how much of the rest of it looks like the picture?

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rick DeMent: All of it. Came across some Before/After sat photos the other day. It’s a hellscape.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @drj: They’re obviously separate categories and we don’t punish soldiers for fighting in wars that their governments ordered them into. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to treat illegal invaders differently than those defending their homelands from invaders.

  10. JohnSF says:

    Not necessarily
    The US is not a party to the International Criminal Court, but the UK is.
    An ICC prosecutor examine the case against the UK government in general, and Tony Blair in particular, over Iraq 2003, and determined the were no grounds to bring charges regarding the war itself.

  11. Scott says:

    Tis a mystery.

    reports that Russian deputy minister Petro Kucherenko died suddenly during a flight returning from Cuba. He’d previously criticized the war in UKR in private conversations. The cause of his death was reported as ‘heart problems’. Kucherenko was 46.

  12. drj says:


    The ICC issued a report on whether the UK military had committed war crimes in Iraq (and whether the UK government had covered these up) – under the commonly held assumption that jus ad bellum and jus in bellum are two different things.

    AFAIK, the investigation did not pertain to the legality of the invasion.

  13. SC_Birdflyte says:

    With any luck, Bakhmut will become Putin’s Stalingrad.

  14. Slugger says:

    War is such an abomination that the concept of jus in bello seems absurd to me. The official policy of the US is “shock and awe.” The war in Iraq got around five thousand American troops killed with somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians suffering that fate. Contemporary war primarily kills civilians, women, children, and fewer people in uniform. To me the legalistic definitions of war crimes is an attempt to make the monstrous more palatable. I’m sure that Putin’s forces are not trying to be more cautious than the norms for modern warfare.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: You can’t fall out a window on a pressurized airplane.

  16. gVOR08 says:


    The war in Iraq got around five thousand American troops killed with somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians suffering that fate.

    I saw an estimate yesterday that the Global “War” on Terror has killed 5 million people, almost all of them innocent bystanders. I hold W. Bush wholly responsible for Abu Ghraib, and most of the GWOT. If you start a war, prisoners will be abused and civilians will die. And be maimed and orphaned.

    We and the Brits flattened Dresden, along with every other German city, and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The evil, as James implies, is the war. And Putin started it.

    I wish I understood why Bakhmut. I thing both sides see it as a successful Verdun. The Ukrainians think they are winning because they’re killing more Russians than Ukrainians. Putin probably thinks he’s winning because he’s killing lots of Ukrainians and mostly only losing scum Wagnerites working for a political rival, not the cream of the Russian Army. (Assuming he thinks they have a cream.)

    Ukraine made Bakhmut a big propaganda thing, as did Putin. I hope the Ukranian counterattacks around Bakhmut are cover for an attack elsewhere, or an effort to mask the intentions of a major push there with the object of ignoring Bakhmut and driving east or south. But I fear they’ve believed their own BS and made Bakhmut a shibboleth they must regain.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Slugger: Thank you! I’ve been resisting saying this all morning. Thumbs up!

  18. dazedandconfused says:

    @James Joyner:

    That matches my view. If the time for taking the city of Donetsk and the other cities of the occupied areas comes there is a chance the Russians might be able to conduct the same contest every building defence. If they can those towns will look the same and I will not accuse the Ukrainians of committing a war crime. I will still blame the Russians for it.

  19. JohnSF says:

    I can no longer find the summary statement online, for some reason. Which is really annoying
    Not on the ICC site either, that I can find. I’ll try a Lexis search tomorrow.

    The document that is available is the final summary from 2020: Situation in Iraq/UK – Final Report, and refers only to jus in bello issues.

    IIRC the short initial summary dated from around 2005(?), and specifically excluded “war of aggression” from consideration, as the ICC charter at the time did not permit such, pending definition agreements.
    That was altered by the 2010 Kampala Conference, with a definition, and confirmed by ratification by 2/3 of ICC participant states in July 2018.
    Whether that is considered retroactive, I haven’t a clue.

    Again IIRC summary statement was that therefore any judgement on legality regarding a particular country could only be based on the determinations of participating nation’s legal systems.
    Legality has never been tested in court in the UK, but has been stated in a statement to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by Christopher Greenwood QC, acting as counsel for the government.
    This was that the war had been ended in 1991 by a ceasefire:

    “Iraq has never complied with these ceasefire conditions and has repeatedly been found to be in breach of the requirements of Resolution 687…”

    Therefor the coalition was at liberty to take action within the terms of UN Iraq has never complied with these ceasefire conditions and has repeatedly been found to be in breach of the requirements of Resolution 687 and 678.
    Breach had been determined, and followed by US/UK Operation Desert Fox in 1998.
    As the position was legally unchanged, no further authority was required for a further resumption of military action.

    “I do not believe that a new resolution expressly authorizing military action is necessary as a matter of international law. In my opinion, the authorization to use “all necessary means” contained in Resolution 678 (1990) (quoted in paragraph 4, above) has not been terminated by the Security Council. The imposition of a ceasefire by Resolution 687 (1991) suspended hostilities and thus suspended the authority to use force but Resolution 687 reaffirmed Resolution 678 (see paragraph 5, above) and thus left open the possibility of further military action to achieve the objectives of Resolution 678 in the event of Iraqi violation of the ceasefire terms.”

  20. JohnSF says:


    But I fear they’ve believed their own BS and made Bakhmut a shibboleth they must regain.

    Doesn’t look like that, according quite a few fairly well informed commentators.

    Looks like they are continuing their long-running tactic; defend, fall back slowly, make a small local counter if the opportunity arises, accept high losses as the price for inflicting even greater losses on the Russian forces.
    Probably the main thing they’ve gained, according to e.g. Philips O’Brien is that the Russian fixation on Bakkmut has eaten up quite a lot of shells, and other assets, that could otherwise have been stockpiled, and diverted Russia from concentrating everything on preparing defensive lines.

    Generally, Ukraine has been very careful at avoiding possible man-traps in this war, when possible; see not assaulting Kherson City head on last autumn. Seem to reason to expect them to get reckless now.

  21. drj says:


    has been stated in a statement to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by Christopher Greenwood QC, acting as counsel for the government.

    You believe every lawyer who maintains that his client is innocent?

    Contrary to Greenwood, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the International Commission of Jurists, the National Lawyers’ Guild, and an independent commission set up by the Dutch government (among others) all maintained that the war was illegal.

    I know who I would believe…

  22. drj says:


    By the way, if you ever wonder why the Global South appears to be considerably less shocked by Russia’s evident attack on the international order than people in the West, this might be part of the answer.

    Why care about the violation of a rule that never protected them in the first place?

  23. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    Indeed, while I’m sure Ukrainian forces are also committing atrocities against Russians, I consider it a lesser crime because they’ve been invaded and their civilian populations targeted. Again, that’s not a universal view [PDF].

    There is no war without pretty pervasive war crimes on both sides. I think the opportunities and the heightened emotions risk corrupting even the “best” men and women. It’s as inevitable as rain in Seattle.

    The bulk of the blame has to fall on those who instigate the war.

    If you move to Seattle, you can’t complain about the rain.

    I am disappointed that the Ukrainians are no longer calling the families of dead Russians and telling them that their kid died for nothing. Apparently that was a war crime, using dead soldiers for propaganda or something.

    The least offensive war crime ever, with the potential to undermine support for the war in Russia. I guess I am actively pro-war-crime, at least in certain narrow circumstances.

  24. JohnSF says:

    That assumes both there is a “global South”, and that their reactions to Russia invading Ukraine are based on some sort of identification with Iraq.

  25. JohnSF says:

    Greenwood was not representing the government as a client, nor was he a government official.
    He was requested to submit an opinion to the government as an independent counsel, and to Parliament which itself has a judicial role in such instances, as an eminent barrister and professor of international law.
    His opinion was no surprise, because almost exactly the same legal basis had been used in regard to the “Desert Fox” air operation in 1998, and been generally accepted.