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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #56

I realise I have become increasingly disgusted by the wanton cultural destruction I have experienced in Kharkiv. For a reason perhaps buried deep in my psyche, this revolts me perhaps more than any other feature of war. The destruction of human creativity and the products of the intellect are some of the first yet some of the most appalling incidents of war. As I walked through the park last night, on the way home from a meeting with colleagues, I passed by several of Kharkiv’s principal cultural buildings, including the base from its Philharmonic orchestra; Pushkin’s theatre; the Museum for Fine Arts, and more. None of these structures have escaped war damage, and in most cases the damage has been extremely serious. Buildings in the classical style have been ripped apart. Enormous holes puncture the roofs. What were once eminent apartment buildings in all likelihood reserved for the elites of the Communist Party have received multiple shells or missiles. The whole front of one building had been torn off, so that the internal stairwell was revealed to the street as were what were once people’s living rooms and internal doors. It is a monumental task to rebuild all this.

Modern warfare prides itself upon its accuracy. The difference between contemporary warfare and the wars fought in the twentieth century, the threat of nuclear exchanges aside, is the capacity of modern ballistic missiles and even artillery systems to target buildings, vehicles and even individual people accurately. Laser guidance technology, and now inertial guidance mechanisms (where a computer flies a missile or guides a bomb directly to the target using GPS technology, taking account of the wind and other environmental factors and even navigating airborne projectiles around buildings so that the target is reached) ought to render strikes upon buildings of no material military relevance increasingly rare.

This ever increasing military ability, to distinguish in one’s targets those of military relevance and those that are not, are essential to upholding the distinction that exists in the international law of war, in what is called jus in bello (the law governing the way in which war is conducted, as opposed to the law governing where it is just to commence or defend a war in the first place or whether to continue it) between military and civilians. Under the admittedly controversial doctrine of “double effect”, civilian targets are impermissible according to jus in bello but military targets are legitimate; however if a target has both military and civilian purposes (such as a car factory that is also constructing military vehicles) then it may in certain circumstances be targeted notwithstanding that it is principally a civilian facility. The area where this doctrine typically runs into problems is over the question of collateral damage: is it legitimate to strike a car with a military leader in, knowing that his innocent civilian family members are also in the same vehicle? However that is not a straightforward question to answer and it must be left for another day.

I mention these legal distinctions and the capacity of contemporary military hardware to strike their targets accurately because with increased capacity for accuracy comes more onerous legal obligations. Carpet bombing of civilian cities with disproportionate impact upon civilians, just to destroy a few factories within a city’s limits, is no longer considered legitimate in modern warfare in the way that it may have been in World War II (although even then it was highly controversial). Nowadays the factories, that may be legitimate targets because they could be deployed to manufacture munitions, can be targeted directly without wanton and indiscriminate damage to residential and civilian buildings that so severely disrupts the way of life of an entire city and destroys the cultural, educational and intellectual institutions of this one of the Soviet Union’s and Ukraine’s most culturally vibrant cities.

Why did the Russian Armed Forces do this to a city with which Russia herself once had such intimate economic and cultural ties? It was after all the Soviet Union, the quasi-imperial predecessor to the modern Russian Federation governed from the same seat in Moscow, that built and rebuilt Kharkiv twice (both before and after the Second World War) in the style to which they aspired and it was the Soviet tradition, for which Russian President Vladimir Putin has such nostalgia and in the name of restoring the glories of which he purports to advance this cruel war, that maintained and developed Kharkiv to its pinnacle of cultural glory.

I cannot sensibly fathom an answer to this question. To say that Russia does not care about international law is trite; they spend a lot of time negotiating over it and trying to maintain their position in the United Nations, so they care about it in some sense; but it probably is true to say that they are inclined to disregard it when it is not convenient for them. Nevertheless there is no reason for Russia to disregard the international law of war in the wanton destruction of culture and ruining the life of this city of intellectuals and educated people. Are the Russians somehow ashamed or resentful of the prior cultural investment made in Kharkiv in the Soviet era, and the shelling and bombing of Kharkiv early in the war was a form of crude revenge ritual for the now wasted efforts that had been made to develop Kharkiv? If that was the motivation then it would be profoundly depressing. Or was the purpose to strike terror into the heart of the civilian population and to depopulate the city for some arbitrary purpose? If that was the goal then it was substantially successful but (as is always the case) not entirely so. Many people remained notwithstanding the rain of terror that fell from the skies. They spent night after night in the city’s metro, using it as a series of air raid shelters, and they returned again the next day to carry on their lives and to keep the glorious city of Kharkiv that they called home running.

Until yesterday I don’t think I realised just what horrors the people of Kharkiv had been through. The attacks upon the city’s historical and cultural centre, a superlative place full of beautiful buildings and parks, were by any standard indiscriminate and a wholly unjustifiable attack upon civilians. By Article 8 of the Rome Statute, which has formalised the principles of jus in bello into international treaty recognised by the vast majority of civilised nations, the following acts shall be within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court:

Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; … Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities; … Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives; … Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; … Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives; …

I wonder whether I will end up being one amongst many witnesses giving evidence at some stage in the future against a series of Russian military leaders before the International Criminal Court. What has happened in Kharkiv - and throughout Ukraine - is a disgraceful violation of the laws of war and an attack upon humanity and its cultural institutions, learning, education and finest achievements. It must be condemned in the most robust terms, and the International Criminal Court may well end up being the institution before which this takes place.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.

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