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Failing in the Field, Russia Targets Ukraine’s Civilian Infrastructure

Meanwhile, Putin steps up repression in Russia and more critics flee.
September 15, 2022
Failing in the Field, Russia Targets Ukraine’s Civilian Infrastructure
(Composite / Photos: Getty Images / Midjourney)

After the euphoria of the last weekend’s Ukrainian counteroffensive, which recaptured three major towns and dozens of villages on some 1,000 square miles of territory at lightning speed, the Ukrainian troops’ advance has slowed down—but they seem to still have the momentum. Meanwhile, on the Russian side, the rhetoric grows shriller and crazier, the big chill gets bigger and chillier, and Vladimir Putin is acting more and more like a cartoon villain. And yet, here and there, signs of sanity crop up.

First, just a few words about where the Ukrainian offensive stands. The Russian frontline in the Kherson region in the south has not collapsed as it did in the Kharkiv region. There are conflicting reports about whether Ukrainian troops have recaptured the village of Kiselivka, fewer than ten miles from Kherson itself. Fighting also continues in the Donbas, and a spokesman for the “Donetsk People’s Republic” has said that Ukrainian troops are about six miles from the enclave.

If Kherson were to be liberated, the demoralizing effect of Ukrainian victories on pro-Putin Russia would be magnified immensely: The southern city, occupied in the first days of the war, was the center of the Kremlin’s planned annexation-by-referendum project. The Kherson referendum, for which the population evidenced little enthusiasm, was originally slated for September 11. It is now indefinitely postponed.

While Russian forces have been able (for now) to stand their ground in some places, their real strategy for countering the Ukrainian offensive is to lob missiles at Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure. On Sunday, they struck power stations in Eastern Ukraine; the hits caused massive outages, particularly in the Kharkiv region. On Wednesday, they targeted a dam in Kryvyi Rih in the Dnipropetrovsk province, creating the risk not only of flooding but of a disruption in the water supply, since the dam stands at the head of a large reservoir that provides drinking water for much of the surrounding area.

So far, the Ukrainians have been admirably efficient at repairing the damage from the Russian strikes; power in Kharkiv was fully restored by Tuesday night. But there is widespread expectation that the Russians won’t stop their effort to disrupt power and heat for as much of the Ukrainian population as they can. With fall setting in and winter drawing near, Putin may turn to a strategy of If you can’t beat ’em, freeze ’em. Recall that last week he threatened to freeze Western Europe into withdrawing its support for Ukraine. As expatriate Russian journalist Yulia Latynina quipped on her YouTube program, Putin’s favorite character on Game of Thrones must have been the Night King, the ice zombie whose war of conquest is intended to plunge the world into an eternity of winter and living death.

On the pro-Putin side, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-run RT (formerly Russia Today), took to social media to cheer the attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. With thuggish glee, she posted a Russian song lyric that ends with the lines, “To leave the lights on when you go / Means even more than staying,” signing off with the sarcastic inquiry, “Hey, neighbors, lights not working?” She also shared a post by Chechen-Russian writer and lawyer German Sadulayev stating, “Electricity is not a right but a privilege.”

Simonyan appeared this week on Vladimir Solovyov’s evening talk show on state-run TV, where she demanded to know why Russian leadership wasn’t subjecting the rest of Ukraine to total blackouts. “It’s time to get tough,” agreed Solovyov. Another guest suggested that plunging people into cold and darkness was not a great way to win the hearts and minds of people who (according to the Putin doctrine) are brothers and compatriots to the Russians, but it seems that the pro-Putin elite consensus gave up on Ukrainian hearts and minds a while back. Political scientist Dmitry Kulikov flatly declared that “the majority of Ukrainians, even aside from the Ukrainian government, are on the side of the United States. In that sense, they are not part of the Ukrainian nation of which we speak when we say we are one people. And that’s something we need to understand.”

That would seem to be a de facto admission that Russia is waging a war of aggression against the majority of Ukrainians, not just intervening to disarm an illegitimate ruling clique in Kyiv. But to Kulikov, pro-Western Ukrainians “are complicit in the American goal of our destruction,” and thus Russian aggression is obviously self-defense.

What this means in practice is revealed by reports from newly liberated areas. A BBC report on the ground details torture and killings:

Artem, who lives in the city of Balakliya in the Kharkiv region, told the BBC he was held by Russians for more than 40 days, and was tortured with electrocution.

Balakliya was liberated on 8 September after being occupied for more than six months. The epicentre of the brutality was the city’s police station, which Russian forces used as their headquarters.

Artem said he could hear screams of pain and terror coming from other cells. . . .

Artem told us he was detained because the Russians found a picture of his brother, a soldier, in uniform. Another man from Balakliya was held for 25 days because he had the Ukrainian flag, Artem said.

A school principal called Tatiana told us she was held in the police station for three days and also heard screams from other cells.

Meduza, the independent Russian-language site now based in Latvia and blocked in Russia, has published another harrowing testimony from Yulia Petrova, a Kupiansk woman who fled the town with her elderly mother, 9-year-old daughter and six cats—she runs an animal shelter from her house—on August 22. The last straw, she told the site, was a visit from Russian soldiers who demanded to know whether she was a Ukraine sympathizer and threatened to kill her child in front of her. But Petrova’s account also makes it clear that the occupation was terrible from day one.

They entered the town like masters. On the first day, they hung flags everywhere, Russian and Soviet, and put armed soldiers on every street corner. . . . Right away, they started taking away people’s businesses. They commandeered vending spots on the market. They went “shopping” the same way. You couldn’t look them in the eye, they’d just take anything they wanted from the counter. And if someone argued with them, or even if they were just in a bad mood, they’d beat people and take them to the basements.

They took away anything they wanted. They’d go into apartments and take anything they liked. They could take away your house, or your car. At best they’d pull you out of the car. . . .

What happened in the basements [of administrative buildings] was awful. They kept people there. When you passed by, your hair would stand on end: you could hear inhuman screams. Men and women both. It’s horrible to even imagine what they were doing to make people scream like that.

A friend’s son, Petrova said, was “taken to the basement” after he missed the curfew by a few minutes; while he was released the next day, he had been beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk. And it gets worse:

Many people we knew who didn’t hide their pro-Ukrainian views disappeared. We don’t know where they are. Our deputy Nikolai Masliy, who came out to rallies, he’s still missing. A lot of young women also disappeared. What happened to them? Nobody knows. Lots of bad things happened.

Petrova acknowledged that a number of people in the town, especially older residents, were pro-Russian: “They had a kind of nostalgia—they said, ‘Now we’ll start earning a good salary, the railroad will start working just like back in the Soviet Union.’” One of those pro-Russian residents, Petrova told Meduza, had probably denounced her to the Russian authorities, and three Russian soldiers showed up at her apartment looking for Ukrainian flags and other signs of allegiance to Ukraine.

They put their automatic rifles at me and at my child, reloaded them. They shouted, “We’re going to shoot your kid right now! Come on, where are your flags, where’s your banner, bitch? You’re for Ukraine, aren’t you? You don’t like us Russians? You don’t like us?”

The next day, on August 22, Petrova managed to find someone with a car who was willing to smuggle her out to Ukrainian-held territory, past nine Russian block posts. She says that all her jewelry—even her daughter’s cross on a gold chain—and the last of her money, $400, went to bribe the guards. “They thought they were the masters of our lives,” she told Meduza. “They would decide whether you could get out of not.”

Amid various Russian acknowledgments that things are not going well in Ukraine right now, a new video by Chechen strongman and Putin buddy Ramzan Kadyrov stands out. Russia, declared Kadyrov, needs not just general mobilization to defeat “those devils who don’t believe in any religion or tradition”—and who “have more and more allies because they are devils”—but actual martial law.

So far, there are no signs of general mobilization in Russia, only stepped-up recruitment of prisoners by mercenary companies for fighting in Ukraine (with warnings that anyone trying to get out will be executed). But as for martial law, one could argue that Russia is already well on its way there. The last independent journalists are getting out; most recently, it’s Evgenia Albats, the editor-in-chief of New Times magazine. The last independent publications are being killed; Novaya Gazeta, the stalwart of free journalism in Russia, whose editor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, just had its registration revoked by a Moscow district court. The trade union of journalists and media employees has been ordered shut down by the Moscow city court for “gross violations.” A district court in St. Petersburg has granted a request from the prosecutor’s office to allow the dissolution of the Smolny Municipal Council, which passed a resolution last week urging Putin’s removal from office. In Moscow, 72-year-old activist Leonid Gozman served fifteen days in detention for a Facebook post equating Stalin and Hitler; on the way out of jail, he was immediately arrested again and charged with a similar offense, this time over a LiveJournal post from 2013 comparing the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany. “This is how Putin’s Reich responds to defeat in Ukraine,” commented YouTuber Igor Yakovenko. “The Reich is clearly blaming people like Gozman for the defeat.”

And, crossing over into the realm of the truly surreal: inmates in the high-security penal colony where opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny is serving a nine-year sentence on a politically motivated fraud conviction are forbidden to look at Navalny. You read that right: If Navalny comes out into the yard or is led from one location to another, his presence is signaled with three loud rings, after which the other prisoners are supposed to turn away. This comes on the heels of another new restriction on Navalny: His lawyer is only allowed to meet with him if there is an opaque barrier between them.

“It’s a renaissance” of repressive tactics, New Times editor Victor Davidoff told me in an email, pointing out that similar no-looking-at-fellow-inmates rules for especially notorious prisoners existed in Soviet times in the KGB’s Lefortovo prison and in the NKVD prisons under Stalin. “Putin hasn’t invented anything new.”

New or not, such measures have a whiff of panic about them.

So far, despite the reports of Russian failures in Ukraine, there are no signs of popular discontent. A poll by the Levada Center in August found that only 11 percent of Russians said they would be willing to take part in a political protest. But here’s a small silver lining: Only 35 percent believe that the government should suppress protests against the “special operation.”

Small acts of resistance can still be found here and there, however. So far, 67 municipal deputies, mostly from Moscow and St. Petersburg, have added their signatures to a petition demanding Putin’s resignation. Several large cities have canceled or minimized “city day” celebrations in recognition of events on the frontlines; while the reasoning tends to be explicitly pro-Russia—a joyful celebration, one mayor wrote in the social media, would be an insult to fallen soldiers “who are defending Russia’s integrity and interests in the fight against the Russophobic collective West”—even such steps defy the regime’s life-as-usual pretense.

And there are always the undaunted dissidents such as Navalny’s associates who followed the release of the grotesque prison recruitment video with their own video report on such recruits and their usually grim fate—released on the very day that penal colony inmates were ordered to treat Navalny like the Invisible Man.

Can discontent in Russia have any effect on the war in Ukraine? Perhaps we will soon find out.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.