With the Kremlin’s plan of a quick victory and the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv having convincingly failed, we are seeing an angry and unconstrained Putin resorting to the mass slaughter of the Ukrainian population.


They were just a family of four trying to escape the hell of Russian bombs falling on homes in Irpin, a satellite suburb of western Kyiv. Last Sunday lunchtime, they were in a stream of evacuees moving quickly in single file along a pavement, only to find mortar shells raining down on them as they scampered for safety. They didn’t stand a chance. The woman and both children, a teenage son and a daughter of around eight, lay dead amid their bags. The father suffered severe wounds and died later. As soldiers ran to the scene to try to give first aid, the family’s pet dog, driven berserk by the noise and carnage, yelped endlessly. Pro-Putin commentators will say the photos are all fake—they would, wouldn’t they. But a video of the incident, captured by the New York Times, showed the Russian mortar shells exploding like an almighty thunderbolt. Just a small cameo of life in today’s Ukraine.

With more than 2 million refugees fleeing the country, schools and hospitals bombed by Russian artillery and aircraft, millions trapped in cities without food, water and any heating in sub-zero temperatures, the situation in Ukraine is beyond dire. But then no one should be surprised. In Vladimir Putin’s deranged mind people are expendable. The important thing is to achieve the objective, in this case the subjugation and incorporation of Ukraine into Russia.

If you find this hard to believe, remember the war in Chechnya back in 1999. Even before the war started, nearly 300 innocent Russians were killed by their own security services in order to provide a pretext for the then Prime Minister Putin to invade Chechnya. The First Chechen War of 1994 had lasted nearly two years and ended in an embarrassment for President Yeltsin, with the demoralisation of Russian forces and almost universal opposition of the Russian public. The new prime minister was determined that there would be no repeat of this disaster. But first he needed a casus belli, and the security services came up with a plan.

Between 4 and 16 September that year a series of explosions hit four apartment blocks, killing 293 and injuring 651 people, spreading a wave of fear across Russia. Six days later a similar explosive device was found and defused in an apartment block in the Russian city of Ryazan, 120 miles from Moscow. The following day, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the Ryzanians and, blaming Chechnya for the attack, he ordered the air bombing of its capital, Grozny, marking the beginning of the Second Chechen War. This time the war ended in total victory for Russia, with Grozny completely demolished and thousands killed. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s popularity ratings went sky high.

So much for the facts. The problem for Putin was that shortly after his address to the nation, three FSB (former KGB) agents who had planted the Ryazan device, and who were spotted rushing away from the crime scene, were arrested by the local police, unaware of the plot. An embarrassed Kremlin quickly announced that the incident had really been a training exercise, which of course few believed. Putin’s government then did everything possible to thwart an investigation into the incident by an independent commission, whose key members later died in mysterious circumstances. A number of journalists covering the case, including Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Alexander Litvinenko in London, were also later assassinated for exposing the plot. The official investigation, ordered by the now President Putin, unsurprisingly concluded the following year that the Chechens were indeed guilty of the bombings and that the war with Chechnya was justified. But most independents believe that this was merely a whitewash. The whole incident had been coordinated by the FSB with the aim of boosting the popularity of their former boss, Vladimir Putin, and propel him to the presidency. In the eyes of Vladimir Putin and the FSB, the death of 293 fellow citizens and thousands of innocent Chechen civilians, together with the total demolition of Grozny and much of Chechnya, was a small price to pay to achieve a huge majority in the presidential elections the following March.

Now take your thoughts back to Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with roots going back to the sixth millennium BC. After Syria’s 2011 Arab Spring protests descended into civil war, Aleppo became a key base for a number of different rebel factions opposed to the Assad regime. In the summer of 2015, the rebel presence there was solid—in fact Assad was widely understood to be losing ground around the country, and possibly his grip on power. Enter Vladimir Putin, who supplied warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery pieces and large numbers of “military advisors”. In July 2016, following a siege of the city, blocking even humanitarian assistance, and a non-stop bombardment from Russian warplanes and artillery, rebel defences gradually collapsed. The destruction of Aleppo, and the death of thousands, represents a mass slaughter bordering on genocide. All because of the intervention of the Kremlin.

Returning to the current war, a fascinating assessment of Putin’s military objectives and rationale appeared last week, tweeted by former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. Kozyrev believes Putin “is a rational actor” who made three major “miscalculations”: he “started to believe his own propagandists that Ukraine was led by Nazis; his military advisors lied to him about the state of the Ukrainian army; and he believed his own propaganda that US President Joe Biden is ‘mentally inept’ and that the EU ‘weak’.” This leads Kozyrev to argue that Putin is not mad, but “wrong and immoral”.

Also surfaced last week was a remarkable analysis from an apparent FSB whistleblower, which went viral, calling the war a “total failure”, claiming Russian troops were in the dark about the plan to invade (since confirmed by Russian prisoners), that Russian commanders have “lost contact with major divisions”, and that the number of Russian soldiers killed could be as high as 10,000. The whistleblower said that the security services were being blamed for the failure of the invasion but had been given no warning of it. The London Times newspaper has examined the tweet and believes it to be legitimate.

What we are seeing today in Ukraine is a grim repetition of Grozny and Aleppo. With the Kremlin’s plan of a quick victory and the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv having convincingly failed, we are seeing an angry and unconstrained Putin resorting to the mass slaughter of the Ukrainian population. Just as he was happy to attack an aid convoy attempting to help the trapped population of Aleppo in 2016, so he is doing the same in Ukraine. There is also the concern that the Kremlin is preparing a false-flag chemical incident in order to use chemical weapons against Ukrainian troops and population, as was carried out in Aleppo on at least eight occasions between 17 November and 13 December 2016..

With his troop morale plummeting and facing massive resistance by the Ukrainian army, and reports of a mass exodus from his country, Putin is turning to the use of Syrian mercenaries and Chechen fighters, as well as notoriously inaccurate long-range bombardment of city centres. Russian military doctrine is not subtle. Any resistance will result in bombardment by both heavy weapons and from the air to destroy the enemy. Civilian casualties are of no concern. The World Health Organisation, headed by Ethiopian Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, confirmed this week that there have been at least 26 attacks on Ukrainian health facilities since the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Anthony Loyd, the Times’ veteran war correspondent who movingly wrote from Ukraine’s second city last week: “In Kharkiv hospitals the faces of war are sculptured by flying glass and burning shrapnel. Women are adorned in stitches, their skin coloured in bruises and garish green disinfectant. Wounded children stare up from their beds, listless with pain and trauma. Some weep in shock.”

Echoes of Grozny and Aleppo.


John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.