The true scale of Putin’s crimes are only just being uncovered

Torture, executions, and deportations of children should be the wake up call waverers need about what is at stake

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

22 November 2022 •


With the liberation of Kherson, the horrors associated with the Russian occupation are finally coming to light. What the Ukrainians are discovering should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who thinks we live in a civilised age. 

At the very least, they appear to replicate the crimes uncovered during the early stages of the war when the Russians were kicked out of Bucha: torture, summary executions, and hasty burials. But there’s more. A recent Amnesty International report also describes the forced deportation of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia and the removal of children from their families. This would constitute not only a war crime, but by some international standards is an integral ingredient of what may be defined as “cultural genocide”.

I have written frequently about the similarities of the Russian “playbook” in Syria to how they are fighting in Ukraine. The “unconventional violence” on display there turns civilians, not just soldiers, into targets. They not only attack children going to school and those in hospital, but are prepared to torture and deport those they do not manage to kill, perhaps even on an industrial scale.

There are several factors behind the ill-discipline and evil intent of Russian soldiers. Foremost are orders from the Kremlin, which we can already say definitely contravene the rules of war – just look at the bombardment of Kyiv’s civilian infrastructure: a war crime. But when it comes to the more “spontaneous” acts of murder, it’s important to examine the sociological causes.

Firstly, there is no non-commissioned officer class – sergeants and corporals – in the Russian army.  These people are the backbone of the British army and other western militaries: experienced operators who do not lose their heads in the heat of battle and commit atrocities under the fog of war. The first time in conflict is a harrowing experience for anybody – I know – and it takes time to find one’s feet and act entirely rational in this most irrational of environments. To lose these seasoned officers is to enable soldiers to give into their worst instincts.

Secondly, Russian officers tend to lead from the rear and hence are unable to grip their subordinates to ensure their compliance with the rules of war. Again, this enables ill-disciplined infantrymen to make decisions that are illegal under international law.

Thirdly, evidence suggests the influence of the notorious Wagner Group of mercenaries – who are emptying the jails of Russia to throw murderers and rapists into the front – have no boundaries and care little to add more crimes to their records. Evidence suggests that they are working more closely with the Russian army than initially believed.

Finally, and perhaps most significant of all, are conscripts: when you have thousands of young men with only a few days training under their belt – unlikely to have included lessons in the Geneva Conventions – is it any wonder that we are now seeing atrocities against the Ukraine population unseen since the days of Stalin?

Such deviations from international law should concern us not only because of the nature of the heinous crimes themselves, but also what they indicate about the direction of travel for the war more generally. One must ask in light of these crimes: are there limits to the level Putin and his soldiers are prepared to stoop?

If not, then the consistent attacks on the Zaporizhizia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) should be of more concern than they currently are. In the worst case scenario, they could create the largest dirty bomb ever envisaged – one that could contaminate vast tracks of Europe.

However hopeless this all seems, we must not sit on our hands, and our leaders must act. To neutralise the improvised nuclear weapon that is ZNPP, in my view the UN must declare a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) around ZNPP to ensure nobody can shell it – if the Russians are not to blame as they claim, then surely they would comply?  

Similarly, we must give all support we can to international efforts to investigate the apparent war crimes being committed, and more seriously be talking about setting up a tribunal, now, so that those who may be considering atrocities in future might think twice, as we start the mammoth task of bringing those already accused to account.  

The Amnesty report should not be lost amid the myriad of torture and death now being discovered in Kherson; it appears of equal evil. Hopefully, most of those in the Amnesty report are still alive and there is a chance to save them and repatriate them back to Ukraine – but I am concerned there is so little coverage of this report that it is in danger of sinking without a trace until the issue becomes so vast and obvious that it cannot be ignored. Whatever criticisms have been made of Amnesty recently, I think this report is the real deal. I urge anyone on the fence about what is at stake in Ukraine to read it.

I have spent the last 34 years on battlefields of the world, and know warfare is always terrible and is to be avoided at all costs. But this conflict is happening in real time on our screens and social media: nobody can say they did not see it.  It is time for the good men and women of the free world to stand up and act. Putin and his evil disciples appear to have no boundaries and could destroy us all mentally and physically if we do not act now, armed – as we are – with all means to prevent further atrocities.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon gave the Garrod Lecture at Cambridge University last week with John Simpson on ‘Unconventional Violence and the Materiel of Modern Warfare’


Some DT readers’ comments :

Alastair Wylie: “When considering how best to ensure that Putin receives punishment commensurate with the terror and pain he has inflicted on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainians, I commend a visit to the Museo de la Tortura in Santillana Del Mar in Northern Spain. They really knew how to deal with the truly vile in those days (even if most of the victims were probably innocent of any real crimes!). I can’t think of a sweeter end for Putin than to be locked, naked, into a man-sized birdcage, hoisted thirty feet into the air and left there while birds feasted upon him until he died. So many other wonderful options – all of them certain to have him screaming until his lungs ruptured. A fitting end for this tyrant.”

“Putin is a despot and a blackguard – it’s really that simple. The world will never be right until he is dead. Surely the Western powers have sufficient Special Forces to rid us of him.”

Kevin Alton Honeywell: “Why are parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate, whose patriarch has given unqualified support to Putin before and during this war, allowed to operate in the UK?”

Richard Foster. “I’m sorry but soldiers don’t need training in international conventions to know that raping six year old girls is a grotesque mortal sin. They should be beaten and hung at best.”

Carpe Jugulum: “There is not one single incident in the entirety of the Iraq saga that comes even close to the Russian atrocity at Bucha nor one single campaign of torture that has left anything like the mass graves dotting Ukraine courtesy of an invading army of Russian filth. The sad fact is the Russian army are amoral scum, as are their apologists.”

Rachel Kenward: “The Ukrainians are manning the front line between Putin’s barbarity and the democratic west. Their lives are on the line. The least we can do is provide them with the armaments and equipment they need to fight the invader and “General Winter”. Then follow up with evidence of what has happened in areas under occupation to enable transgressors to be brought to justice.”

Mike Andrews: “Murder, theft of children and forced adoption by German families was part and parcel of Nazi tactics in Poland and the rest of eastern Europe in WW2. Not many of those children were ever reunited with their relatives despite a considerable UNRRA effort, even with Germany completely occupied. Ukraine has very little chance of seeing deportees again without massive pressure on Russia from the civilised world.”

Reinhold Behringer: “Spot on said. Looking back at history, it feels as if “the West” and the civilized world are now in the same situation as England was in the early 1940: standing up against an evil cruel enemy who despises human rights. The lesson learned is to have enough resolve to stand up against such evil, even if this means sweat and blood. We cannot avoid a major war anymore, it is too late for appeasement. We must be prepared to destroy the evil engine which currently reigns in Russia. Regime change there MUST happen. And it seems it only can come from the outside, same as in WW2 in Germany. Only after the full and total defeat of Russia one may hope again that this country might return to the Nations which want to pursue peace on generally accepted rules of humanity, international law and democracy. Until then, the period of a relatively stable peace since 1945 is over for us now. We are currently in the pre-war phase.”

B. Mulhern replied: “Very true . The only thing that will stop Russia now and after Putin is abject humiliation. The Russians are a sick people and need to be completely broken or they will be back later.”

Christine Calver: “And yet Putin continues raining down hundreds of missiles on key infrastructure and destroying as much of the country as possible and nothing is done. It looks like the Ukrainian armed forces can win the war on the ground but how to stop Putin’s scorched earth policy?”

Simon Coulter: “Why are we hearing so little about the deportations, concentration camps far inside Russia, and the forced separation and adoption of children? This is the real and massive humanitarian / genocide crime happening in Ukraine.”

Melvin Hynds: “Angela Merkel cosied up to this despot for years, followed by the rest of the Western world, now he has revealed his true colours everyone is shocked that they had the wool pulled over their eyes, unfortunately dictators are usually paranoid and Putin is no exception. We can only hope that he gets his comeuppance one way or another.”

Adrian Sewell: “Russia has always acted appallingly in War or peace for that matter. For example: 4500 Polish officers murdered after surrendering. The Cossack genocide. The 3 million Jews and countless Gypsies murdered. A despicable race.”

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