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.