Talking Points

Russia repeats history with its war crimes in Ukraine

The scenes in the Kyiv suburbs are devastating: masses of bodies piled in shallow graves; people found tortured and killed — their "crime" unclear — and reports of widespread rape.

Russian President Vladimir Putin "is brutal, and what's happening in Bucha is outrageous and everyone's seen it," President Biden told reporters after seeing images from the area. "I think it is a war crime ... He should be held accountable." 

If history is a guide, these attacks on civilians by the Russian military in Ukraine may be only the beginning of something much, much worse — at least in scale. Few countries are innocent of war crimes, but Russia's military stands out in its record of atrocities and for how personal they are.

You don't have to go back to the Middle Ages to find evidence of that barbarism. At the end of World War II and soon after, the Soviet Red Army is believed to have raped as many as 2 million German women and unknown numbers of men and children.

If that history were included in Russian textbooks, it might be framed as payback for the estimated 27 million Russian deaths, more than half of them civilians, during that war. But while thirst for revenge for Nazi war crimes and genocide is understandable, those rapes remain an inexcusable part of Russian military history.

And it didn't end 70 years ago. In the Kremlin's Chechen war, which began in 1996 and was ended by Putin eight years later, there were widespread reports of rape, arson, torture, and other crimes by Russian soldiers, as I wrote previously here at The Week. Estimates of civilian deaths there range up to 250,000, and reports of Russian forces intentionally targeting civilians, and even first responders and other rescuers, also followed Russia's intervention in Syria, beginning in 2016.

Russia isn't unique here — witness the fact that 8 percent of men living in what once was the Mongolian Empire have the same Y-chromosome. That was hundreds of years ago, though, and the norms and rules of war have changed. But the devastation around Kyiv is a horrific reminder the facts of war remain the same.