Terror arsenal – Russia’s intimidation campaign


Originally published in Latvian on www.delfi.lv

Mārcis Balodis, researcher at the Centre for East European Policy Studies

Many people have been taken aback by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Not only has the war been surprising, but so has the brutality of the Russian armed forces, particularly against civilians and inhabited areas. Throughout the war, Russia has shown a willingness to attack targets with little or no military value, at the same time officially advocating for the protection and liberation of the Ukrainian people from the Kyiv regime. A natural question arises from this: what is Russia attempting to achieve in this way, and what is the benefit of doing so?

From a tractor to Armageddon

The President of Russia celebrated his 70th birthday on 7 October, and as befits a jubilee, he received numerous gifts. The authoritarian leader of Belarus A. Lukashenko presented him with a tractor[1], while the Ukrainian Front presented him with a blown-up bridge over the Kerch Strait. Although no one has taken responsibility for what happened and various explanations have been offered, the gift provided is significant. It not only complicates war logistics, but it also directly undermines Russia’s imperialist ambitions, which the bridge represents. Furthermore, Russia has openly demonstrated its inability to protect a strategic object far from the active front line, raising serious concerns about the availability of Russian resources for Russia’s own defence. Given the political risks of such public shaming, the answer was quick. Two days later, Russia began shelling Ukraine with various types of missiles and kamikaze drones supplied by Iran.[2] President Putin stated that he had ordered such attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in response to the terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge.[3] Given that the attack began less than 48 hours after the Crimean bridge explosion, it is believed that the missile attack was pre-planned in response to Russian failures in Kharkiv, Izyum, and Lyman regions and that the attack on the Crimean bridge merely accelerated the implementation of the decision.[4]

The Russian Ministry of Defence announced that successful strikes had been carried out on Ukrainian Armed Forces command centres and infrastructure, as well as on energy infrastructure.[5] As a result of the attacks, water and electricity supplies were disrupted in many parts of Ukraine. However, according to publicly available information, at least some of the targets were civil, including parks and playgrounds for children. Significantly, several strikes on civilian infrastructure in Kyiv occurred in the morning hours of Monday, 10 October, when the streets of the city were crowded. The attack also damaged the office centre where the German consulate is located, which has been empty since the spring.[6] Thus, the overall picture emerges, namely, that Russian attacks have been carried out not strictly for military purposes, but in general, without sorting the targets according to their usefulness to front-line war operations.

Just two days before Russia resumed mass missile attacks, President V. Putin announced a new commander for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This honour was given to Sergey Surovikin, and soon after, publications praising him began to appear in the Russian media, emphasising his abilities and determination. He was praised not only by the owner of the private army Wagner, J. Prigozhin, but also by the self-proclaimed soldier of V. Putin and Chechen leader R. Kadyrov.[7] It is significant that most publications chose to highlight General S. Surovikin’s nickname, General Armageddon, which he earned during the Syrian war for his ability to act harshly and employ unconventional solutions.[8] Given that attacks on civilians and infrastructure resumed soon after his public appointment, his nickname may not be undeserved. However, two peculiarities are worth noting. First of all, the nickname Armageddon is also given to Colonel General of the Russian Armed Forces Mihail Teplinsky, who has been fighting in Ukraine for years and became more actively involved in Russia’s unsuccessful war in the spring of this year.[9] Secondly, this case is unique in that the appointment of General S. Surovikin was made public. Until now, information about the rotations of various generals in positions was mostly provided at the level of rumours or through Western media, referring to Western sources.

Campaign of intimidation

Naturally, the question of the significance of such measures in wartime arises. It is fairly safe to assume that both the attacks and the installation of a new general are partly aimed at a domestic Russian audience that requires a quick and clear response to failures on the front and even outside of it. This is especially important for highly aggressive groups of society, such as various military analysts and commentators, who are already critical of what is going on, and such a strong response will not go unnoticed. However, a significant part of the audience is in Ukraine, and Russia’s actions are part of a psychological terror and influence campaign aimed at breaking Ukraine’s fighting spirit. Since 24 February, Russia has launched attacks on infrastructure directly necessary for Ukraine’s defence capabilities, such as fuel depots and rail networks[10]. For the same amount of time, Russia has attacked civilian areas with no direct military purpose. Anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, which are designed to attack land targets, particularly those that are not well protected, are also used for this purpose.[11] Consequently, not only residential houses but also hospitals, kindergartens, and even harvest fields have suffered.[12] It is possible to assume that in some cases, inaccurate Russian intelligence or technical flaws are to blame. However, the massive nature of such attacks clearly demonstrates a deliberate tendency to attack Ukraine without sorting the targets.

This stands in stark contrast to Russia’s constantly repeated arguments about the war’s supposedly humanitarian goals, namely the protection of civilians. The Kremlin does not hesitate to give reminders of the allegedly systematic crimes committed by the Kyiv regime against its citizens, which forces Russia to use force to suppress V. Zelensky’s regime in the name of humanitarian goals. This is contrasted with Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian objects and civilians, not to mention the atrocities committed in Bucha, Izyum and Irpin. The paradox is explained by Ukraine’s general intransigence and unyielding fighting spirit, which has allowed it to successfully resist Russian aggression and even put it to shame. Russia’s tactics, unable to break the war on the battlefield, are aimed at intimidating and terrorising the entire society in the hope that the Ukrainians will raise the white flag. Against this backdrop, Russia’s response to the Crimean bridge bombing and Ukraine’s success on the battlefield is clear: any efforts to resist Russia will be met with an asymmetric campaign of intimidation. Although the appointment of General S. Surovikin does not guarantee success, the emphasis on his reputation is a clear indication to Ukraine of what lies ahead. True, this does not imply that S. Surovikin is directly responsible for the recent attacks on Kyiv. This type of attack has not only been carried out under the leadership of other generals, but the often mentioned cruelty of S. Surovikin against civilians in Syria is not significantly different from the general actions of the Russian Armed Forces in the Syrian war.[13]

Russia’s war in Ukraine is motivated by aggressive, imperialistic, rather than humanitarian considerations, as demonstrated by Russia’s actions. Such attacks can only reinforce Russia’s failures as the West begins to supply more advanced air defence systems. Such aggression, according to Russian calculations, should suppress any desire to resist and encourage Ukraine’s capitulation. Instead, the Kremlin’s actions demonstrate the opposite – an inability to carry out the plans they set themselves and changed several times, which is bolstered by Ukrainians’ confidence in their victory.

This publication has been financed by the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF) that is managed by the “Calouste Gulbekian Foundation”:  The sole responsibility for the content lies with the author(s) and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of EMIF or the foundation.

[1] AP News, “Leader of Belarus gifts Putin a tractor for 70th birthday”, skat. 19.10.2022., https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-putin-st-petersburg-government-and-politics-8ae8fd9270a883d06a09ddd7efbf08f3

[2] Ian Williams, “Russia Doubles Down on Its Failed Air Campaign”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-doubles-down-its-failed-air-campaign

[3] Kateryna Stepanenko et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 100”, Institute for the Study of War, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-10

[4] Ian Williams, “Russia Doubles Down on Its Failed Air Campaign”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-doubles-down-its-failed-air-campaign

[5] Kateryna Stepanenko et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, October 100”, Institute for the Study of War, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-10

[6] Reuters, “Strikes hit building that houses empty German consulate in Kyiv, Berlin says”, Euronews, skat. 20.10.2022., https://www.euronews.com/2022/10/11/ukraine-crisis-germany-consulate

[7] Владимир Шарапов, “Генерал Армагеддон. Спецоперацию российских войск на Украине возглавил новый командующий. Чем известен генерал Суровикин?”, Lenta.ru, skat. 21.10.2022., pieejams: https://web.archive.org/web/20221022181220/https://lenta.ru/articles/2022/10/12/general/

[8] Виктор Баранец, “Генерал-танкист и генерал-армагедон: кто на самом деле командует российскими войсками на Украине”, KP, skat. 21.10.2022., pieejams: https://web.archive.org/web/20221022031759/https://www.kp.ru/daily/27412/4610329/

[9] DonPress, “v В Донецке ждут известного российского генерала, известного, как «Армагеддон». Названа цель его прибытия на Донбасс”, skat. 20.10.2022., https://donpress.com/news/31-03-2022-v-donecke-zhdut-izvestnogo-rossiyskogo-generala-izvestnogo-kak-armageddon-nazvana

[10] Ian Williams, “Russia Doubles Down on Its Failed Air Campaign”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-doubles-down-its-failed-air-campaign

[11] Turpat

[12] Turpat

[13] Karolina Hird et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment October 11”, Institute for the Study of War, skat. 19.10.2022., https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-11