Putin’s missile madness may backfire

Published by The i paper (5th June, 2023)

The hail of Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine has become remorseless. A mother and her nine-year-old daughter were killed rushing to an air raid shelter in Kyiv last week. The corpse of a two-year-old girl was pulled from the ruins of a destroyed home in Podgorne. Two adults died in strikes on a Dnipro building that contained a mental health clinic – the 974th assault on a medical facility, each one a war crime. The Kyiv Post recorded 563 hits against cities, towns and villages during Vladimir Putin’s “month of missile madness” in May, costing the Kremlin £1.4bn – yet only 30 drones and rockets broke through Ukraine’s beefed-up air defences.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington argues this is another switch in Russian bombing tactics, forced by military failures. At the start, they hit mainly military targets. Thwarted from capturing Kyiv, they moved to attacking infrastructure to try to stop the supply of Western weapons. The focus shifted to energy in the autumn, hitting lighting and heating facilities in an attempt to freeze Ukraine into submission. Now Putin uses his missiles as “instruments of psychological warfare” in his latest bid to break Ukrainian morale, trying to batter cities and deplete defences amid mounting domestic concern over his stupid war.

The despot has proved again that he is neither a good historian nor military strategist, for all his infatuation with Peter the Great and twisted use of the Great Patriotic War to fuel his propaganda. Certainly, these Russian strikes induce fatigue, fear and mental stress for Ukrainians forced to endure the sirens, broken sleep and panicked sprints to shelters. It is alarming to be woken by the nearby sound of cruise missiles blasting buildings, as I can testify. These attacks are terrible for parents trying to calm children, businesses trying to survive a war-shattered economy and leaders of a country fighting for survival.

Yet this assault only hardens hatred towards Putin’s regime, uniting people under attack and strengthening their resolve to resist the forces committing such atrocities. This might sound counter-intuitive when you see the blood, broken buildings and graves of children blown to pieces. But the history of terror bombing against civilians shows that it is not just immoral but a tactic that backfires badly.

Following initial use of aerial bombs in the First World War, many military analysts, writers and psychologists predicted the terrifying new concept of dropping death from the skies would break the morale of civilian populations with huge destruction followed by mass panic and societal breakdown. These experts foresaw a game-changer that would force rapid capitulation. But from the Blitz in London to the carnage of carpet bombing in Vietnam, they have been proved wrong.

Observers first saw how aerial bombing in Spain during the civil war – such as the infamous attack on Guernica – seemed to meld rival factions into a more formidable force. These tactics were used extensively by both sides in the Second World War. But as the history Richard Overy showed, these offensives killed 500,000 people but failed to deliver the military, economic or psychological results envisaged by commanders. Instead, bombs often bought out the best in communities. Cities and firms adapted fast, people helped each other out, alcoholism and suicides fell. “British society became in many ways strengthened by the Blitz, and more, rather than less, determined to stay the course,” wrote Overy. “The effect on Hitler was disillusioning.”

This left Sir Winston Churchill unsure about the wisdom of using such a strategy. So he asked his adviser Frederick Lindemann to investigate, then was persuaded to launch raids on German cities by his friend’s report that claimed the mood in Birmingham and Hull was badly damaged by heavy bombing. “Investigation seems to show that having one’s house demolished is most dangerous to morale,” said the memo. “People seem to mind it more than having friends or even relatives killed.” Lindemann argued similar attacks would “break the spirit of the German people”.

Incredibly, this was fiction. The data, based on hundreds of interviews in two cities taking some of the heaviest damage from German bombs, actually concluded that “in neither town was there any evidence of panic resulting from either a series of raids or from a single raid”. Yet Allied bombers were unleashed, leading to huge numbers of deaths and destruction of some of Europe’s finest cities. After the war, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Patrick Blackett argued the Nazis would have been defeated much faster if bombers had been used more effectively, while Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith described Allied air raids on Germany as “one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, miscalculation of the war”.

A post-war American investigation concluded that “in so far as the offensive against German towns was designed to break the morale of the German civilian population, it clearly failed”. Studies by economists even found industrial production increased faster in the most devastated towns than in those left untouched. Yet such findings failed to stop the grotesque US bombing of Vietnam just two decades later. It was no surprise, however, that analysis 12 years ago found that in areas where more explosives were dropped, more neutrals were driven into the arms of the Viet Cong and it was more likely terrain ended up controlled by the Communist rebels.

Saturation bombing of civilian targets is inhumane and ineffective. Each missile targeted at Dnipro, Kharkiv and Kyiv underlines the failure of Putin’s genocidal efforts to crush Ukraine. As I have seen, this onslaught only fuels the mood of furious defiance and resistance for all the pain and suffering. “It’s really hard not sleeping for a month, hiding from the missiles and drones,” Maria tells me from Kyiv. “But despite the fear, there’s only hatred towards the enemy, pride and gratitude towards our armed forces. Russia has no chance of scaring us into submission.”

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