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Putin Tried to ‘Terror Bomb’ Ukraine Into Surrendering. He Failed

Su-30
Su-30. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s campaign of terror bombing against Ukraine was intended to break the sinews that hold Ukrainian society together, consequently destroying the ability of the Ukrainian state to resist. 

This campaign seems to have failed, just like almost all similar terror bombing campaigns over the last century. 

Theories of Compellence

Theories of the effectiveness of terror bombing have evolved since World War I. Germany conducted the first strategic bombing campaigns during the war, targeting London and other British cities with dirigibles and large, fixed-wing Gotha bombers. The attacks caused inflicted little serious damage but did inspire panic, at least at the beginning. 

What really drove interest in strategic bombing as a way of breaking the trench stalemate were the Russian and German revolutions. Both the German and Russian governments collapsed as a result of battlefield defeats and economic deprivation (the governments of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t far behind), leading some analysts to conclude that bombing could induce enough pain to convince a population to revolt. 

There is a rich literature on the effectiveness of bombing campaigns throughout history, driven in large part by the need to either resist such campaigns or make them more effective. Robert Pape wrote the classic evaluation of strategic bombing campaigns in Bombing to Win, which generally took a dim view of the success of such efforts. Pape argued that airpower is almost always more effectively used as part of a strategy of destroying an opponent’s armed forces than in attacks on civilian targets. 

The Campaign in Practice in Ukraine

The Russian offensive against Ukraine has relied mostly on long-range drones and long-range cruise missiles. Ukrainian air defenses are far too lethal to allow the Russians to conduct a traditional campaign with its manned heavy bombers, although Russia has used those bombers to launch the cruise missile salvos. American and British flyers faced ghastly losses over Germany in World War II, as massive, expensive bombers came into contact with cheaper German fighters and air defense guns.

Still, even though the Russians aren’t risking their pilots and aircraft in the campaign, they are certainly using up a lot of sophisticated munitions, probably more than they can efficiently replace.  

For Ukraine, the equation is much different, with anti-air missiles sometimes costing considerably in excess of the drones and missiles that they’re shooting down. Ukrainian defenses nevertheless appear to destroy a high percentage of the weapons before they reach their targets. Using expensive air defense assets against the Russian terror offensive represents a difficult choice for Kyiv, as Russian aircraft also operate over the battlefield.

Ukraine is also well-situated diplomatically. On the one hand, air defenses are an easier sell for Ukraine’s Western supporters than tanks or fighter jets (although the latter could also be useful for air defense). On the other, helping Ukraine rebuild its damaged electrical grid is safely in the wheelhouse of industrial powers such as Germany, which are reluctant to export lethal weapons but happy to help in this way. 

Impact Thus Far

As with nearly every other strategic bombing campaign in history, the promise of the attack outpaced its actual performance. Although morale is difficult to measure, there seems to be little indication that Ukrainian will to fight has diminished. As in nearly every other case, the Ukrainian victims of Russian terror bombing have tended to blame Russian leadership rather than Ukrainian leadership for the inconvenience. And much as with Russia’s economic campaign to bring Europe to heel, warm winter weather took some of the sting out of the bombing offensive. Russia’s offensive does not appear to have diverted much attention from Ukraine’s efforts at the front. Any damage to Ukraine’s economy inflicted by the campaign pales in comparison to the effect of the rest of the war. On the upside Russia isn’t losing much, other than the use of the drones and munitions in other parts of the war. 

What’s Next for Ukraine? 

For its part Ukraine seems to have judged that the Russian campaign is at its limits. In many ways the terror campaign was uniquely ill-suited to success. While Russia enjoyed considerable success with precision targeting, there was little good reason to think it would be sufficient to think that it would be sufficient to break Ukrainian morale. Ukraine’s economic center of gravity is no longer on its territory, and thus is not subject to Russian attack. Finally, the bombing campaign has helped Kyiv portray Moscow in an even more unflattering light, with plentiful pictures of damage to civilian targets far from the battlefront. Some have argued that the primary purpose of the campaign is less to inflict damage on Ukraine than to answer Russian critics of Putin’s conduct of the war. If the campaign helps Putin keep his grip on Russia’s government, he may well judge it to be a success. 

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Author Expertise and Experience 

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    March 6, 2023 at 8:23 am

    Wrong assumption.

    Russian ‘bombing’ of ukros is simply nothing compared to US bombing of countries like Laos and cambodia which absolutely never had any quarrel with uncle sam.

    USAF flew a total of almost 600,000 sorties over Laos dropping some 2.5 million tons of bombs & munitions, a total that exceeded the ww2 tonnage dropped on either germany & japan.

    Cambodia was at the receiving end of 2.7 millions tons of bombs from US even though it was a very poor nation unable to even mount a protest against the terror bombing.

    US presidents are well known as bomber presidents.

    George bush was the 24-bombs-per-day president.

    Obama 34-bombs-per-day.

    Trump 121-per-day president.

  2. Jim

    March 6, 2023 at 10:24 am

    Terror bombing!

    That’s what Ukraine’s government did from 2015 until the eve of the war… roughly 14,000 eastern Ukrainians died in random shelling into the Donbas, mostly Donetsk City.

    Russia has taken out electrical energy infrastructure and other infrastructure to wear down Ukraine’s capacity to wage war… and, sadly, as is often the case, there is collateral damage, of civilians… the ugly price of war.

    (Initially, Putin wanted to avoid civilian damage in an attempt to get Ukraine to negotiate in good faith… honor the Minsk agreements, which they had never done… Minsk II as a ruse to buy more time to build their army for war… not peace.)

    The Ukrainian terror bombing of the Donbas was the principle reason Russian eventually invaded… Right to Protect… remember that? The U. S. invoked this convention to bomb Yugoslavia and Libya.

    Also, the U. N. Charter, Sec. 51 provides for military action when a nation is under threat for “IMMINENT” attack… Ukraine had some 80,000 men poised in forward positions to “thunder run” into the Donbas… and accelerated the random shelling in the final weeks before Russia’s preemption on February 24, 2022.

    There is significant evidence Ukraine was going to do a Blitzkrieg into the Donbas… Ukrainians of Russian persuasion would of had the choice to flee to “Mother Russia” or stand, fight, and die.

    Had Russia done nothing, there would’ve been a slaughter & massacre of eastern Ukrainians… and the ruling neo-Nazi clique in Kiev would have invoked Stephan Bandera’s memory as their hero, to justify the slaughter… Ukraine’s government would have commemorated the massacre every year after as an anniversary of great celebration.

    This in the 21st Century!

    Disgusting… beyond words.

    The author’s piece is an inversion of reality… nothing new in the propaganda war against Russia.

  3. Nonothing

    March 6, 2023 at 11:47 am

    Right. Tell me another NeoCon fairy tale, Bobby. String together some more BS and lies.

  4. Gary Jacobs

    March 6, 2023 at 12:13 pm

    Jim,

    LoL, your mental gymnastics to invert reality is at an Olympian contortionist level.

    Yees, it is a terror campaign.

    It doesnt take a PhD level researcher to get the translations from the Russians themselves stating their explicit intent to freeze the Ukrainian population during winter.

    YOU are living in a complete state of either denial or deliberate deception.

    As usual, you are making all manner of excuses for Russian behavior and blaming the victim for all of Russia’s transgressions.

    Fortunately, Russia’s terror campaign has utterly failed. They have spent Billion$$ firing missiles at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, and despite all that Ukraine has had full energy recently.

    Furthermore, Ukraine bought basically every gas tanker truck they could get their hands on so they have a distributed mobile network of refueling both civilian vehicles and military. That has made their entire population and military more resilient against Russian aggression.

    That will serve them well when the Ukrainian summer offensive begins.

  5. Paul

    March 6, 2023 at 12:40 pm

    @Trolls of Russia

    How hypocritical do you feel (1-10) when you complain about anti-Russian propaganda, knowing you are yourself a paid agent tasked to paddle fake and misleading talking points to western readers under a false western name? Surely there must be better and more honest ways to put food on the table.

  6. Jim

    March 6, 2023 at 3:08 pm

    In the midst of a propaganda war: always deny, never admit, make counter accusations.

    The neocon brigade’s got that down pat!

  7. Jon

    March 6, 2023 at 3:33 pm

    You have omitted Russia’s use of air defense missiles (S-300 & S-400, in particular) to attack civilian ground targets in Ukraine. Because those missiles adjust their final aiming for center-of-mass, civilian apartment tower and hospitals often seem to best attract those missiles. These are war crimes, as Russia is well aware of the behavior of the missiles it developed.

    Bombing civilian targets is despicable, but these are munitions that have not been targeting Ukraine’s military. Russia has wasted its opportunity to degrade Ukraine’s defense by this misuse.

    Another factor to consider, is that by using its aircraft to carry out bombing missions on Ukrainian civilians, is that those aircraft sustain wear and tear, necessitating parts and maintenance. In other production sectors, Russia does not have the ability to produce parts and equipment sufficient to replace losses, much less increase the number of weapons platforms. I would not be surprised is Russia’s aerospace industry is similarly hampered, and possibly more so, since specialized alloys, computer chips, and other western sourced supplied have been restricted by sanctions. Russia may find itself with many aircraft which are close to becoming un-airworthy, even though they have sustained no combat damage.

  8. Gary Jacobs

    March 6, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    Jim,

    LoL, when you cant make a factual argument that stands up to the slightest bit of basic research, always accuse someone of being a ‘neocon’ even though you never use the word correctly, and likely have no idea what it actually means.

  9. Gary Jacobs

    March 6, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Jim,

    You really should start paying attention to the statements of the very Russians you are so desperate to defend. they dont make it easy for you. Their admissions, of their own volition, and in their own media / social media…continue to prove you wrong over and over.

    For seven years now, Russia and its proxy ‘republics’ in Donbas have been pushing certain key propaganda myths, including the claim that the Ukrainian Armed Forces bombed the city of Yasynovata in the Donetsk oblast in August 2014.

    They even provide shocking video footage, but either ignore, or hope that others have not seen the admission from a prominent Donetsk militant commander that it was his militants who bombed the city.

    It is inconceivable that the Russian and militant propagandists do not know that they are lying. A recent report on UNION, a channel controlled by the so called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR], asserts that fierce fighting began after Ukrainian forces entered the city.

    This makes nonsense of the claims that residential areas came under attack from the Ukrainian soldiers. Why would they use heavy artillery to bomb themselves?

    That, however, is a question that could get you taken away by the so called ‘DPR ministry of state security’, tortured and imprisoned for ‘spying’ or ‘treason’.

    The worrying part of such propaganda is that most viewers would probably not even notice the dissonance, especially people like you, Jim, who dont do well with critical thinking. You would simply see the video footage of devastation and doubtless believe that “dozens of civilians were killed”. Unlike much of the propaganda in 2014 which used, for example, footage of phosphorous bombs from a different year and a different city, the damage shown to Yasynovata is genuine.

    Alexander Khodakovsky, one of the ‘DPR field commanders’, has at least twice (first on social media in August 2019, then in the 2020 interview reported by on by Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazansky) openly admitted that HE was behind the GRAD missile attack on Yasynovata.

    The propaganda does, however, incriminate him and point out his lies about what was, undoubtedly, a war crime. In both the post and his interview, Khodakovsky claims that there were no civilian casualties.

    “For the first time since the beginning of this war, I had to take a hard decision, to bomb my own city with rockets, but God is merciful – no civilians died, and there was even minimal destruction”.

    Russian controlled propaganda media have themselves provided vivid proof that this is not true. Kazansky is certainly right in noting that “in order to expose their propaganda, you don’t need any special operations or hacking of personal emails, etc. Because they are so hopelessly thick, the militants flounder in their own lies and, effectively, confess voluntarily to war crimes”.

    Occasionally, former Russian ‘DPR’ leaders, like Igor Girkin go too far in their revelations and the material in question gets removed (making Kazansky’s videos particularly important.)

    In general, Moscow appears to tolerate militants’ wish to boast of their activities in Donbas, though there are certainly red lines they must not cross. One of these is the direct involvement of Russian military personnel and heavy artillery. Neither in the post, nor in the interview, for example, does Khodakovsky even mention how he and other ‘field commanders’ were able to take or hold Yasynovata and other cities in the summer of 2014, when the Ukrainian Army had seemed close to regaining control over the entire area.

    By the end of August 2014, there were already reports, first from Russian politician Lev Shlosberg and then some courageous Russian journalists about Russian military deaths in Donbas. Within days, a macabre farce began where the widow who had reported her husband’s death began denying it to reporters and handing the phone over to a person whom she claimed to be her husband. The latter, and others, had been killed, as a later journalist investigation has confirmed from gravestones and monuments.

    By 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed into force a law aimed at preventing divulgence of information about Russia’s military engagement in Ukraine and other countries. Had the law been in force in July 2014, crucial information about the secret transportation to Ukraine of a Russian BUK missile carrier and its use in downing Malaysian Airliner MH17 would have never come to light. The same applies to other revelations that can serve as evidence of war crimes at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

    In fact, other militants have continued with revelations, not only about their own war crimes, but about Russia’s military role in what Moscow, and some pro Russian Ukrainians, are still trying to pawn off as a ‘civil war’ in eastern Ukraine.

  10. TheDon

    March 6, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    Never does work against a people protecting their homes.
    Irrelavant what people say who’s winning, Ukrainians will proudly keep fighting.
    Putin was wrong on this and the Russian people deserve better.
    Ukrainians and Russians have too much common ancestry. Putin’s action has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths unnecessarily. Russias boarder was not being threatened.

    If Russias people and the Russians watching this site had the bravery of the Ukrainians they would be organizing the population for overthrow of Putin and his Orthodox supporter Krill.

  11. Jim

    March 6, 2023 at 7:43 pm

    Let’s just bury it, will we?

    Under a pile of rubbish.

    No, you won’t be able to bury it.

    It will all come out in the end.

    Exposed for all to see.

  12. Gary Jacobs

    March 7, 2023 at 9:49 am

    Jim,

    LoL, now you are pretending to wax poetic as if it will hide Russian culpability for all the atrocities they have committed?

    You speak of rubbish when you should be wondering about the rubble Russia is turning Ukrainian cities into.

    They have Zero ability to do sophisticated combined arms maneuvers so they employ a scorched earth strategy and sprinkle in some human wave zerg attacks because their commanders simply do not have any regard for human life.

    All they care about is the glory of Russia’s imperialist fantasies.

    And here you are carrying water for them, exposed for all to see.

    I will certainly continue to call you out for it.

  13. matty

    March 7, 2023 at 10:10 am

    1945 must be desperate for journalist. You are living in a fairy tale. I do like getting my morning laugh to wake me up as I read your articles though. thanks

  14. Webej

    March 7, 2023 at 12:29 pm

    1. Many of the emblematic bombed apartments were not Russian but Ukrainian air defense missiles, in some cases even identifiable by the characteristic BUK shrapnel on the foreground.
    2. Civilians targeted? Are you kidding? Ask yourself how many casualties do you think there would be if you fired 120 precision missiles at targets to create maximum civilian damage? This war is exceptional for the extremely low civilian:military casualty ratio.
    3. Civilian infrastructure? The first thing the US did is take out all civilian infrastructure in Baghdad, Serbia, Aleppo. The Russians have mostly avoided targeting generating capacity, carefully taking out only transformers and grid distribution. In a real war all of this would long be gone. The Russians are obviously targeting mostly the electricity supply for the train logistics.
    4. If you want to know about terror, read up about the fire-bombing of Germany by UK/US or the millions killed by fire storms in Japan, worse by an order of magnitude than the atomic bomb casualties, 100% civilian terrorism. In Korea they stopped the bombing campaign because there were no buildings left standing to target.

  15. dave

    March 8, 2023 at 4:03 am

    LOL! CNN reported 600,000+ casualties! WINNING!

  16. Serhio

    March 8, 2023 at 8:27 pm

    TheDon

    “If Russias people and the Russians watching this site had the bravery of the Ukrainians they would be organizing the population for overthrow of Putin and his Orthodox supporter Krill.”

    I am sure that many in the USA dream about it. However, these are simple dreams. Russians already have experience of destroying the state from within. In 1917 and in 1991. The latter was too recent and many people remember how much suffering it brought. Therefore, pro-Western rebels (if they suddenly dare to rebel), who will oppose the government, will simply be crushed by the tracks of armored personnel carriers (we recall Tiananmen Square in 1989 in Beijing) and the Russian people will applaud this. But there is no one to rebel. All the supporters of the West have long fled abroad and from there they impotently shake their fists in their anger. Most of those who stayed are loyal to the authorities. And most Russians understand what kind of war it is and for what it is being waged. And this is certainly not the nonsense about Putin’s imperial ambitions that the Western press is talking about.

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