Russia’s War Against Ukraine Has Turned Into Terrorism

The Russian military isn’t just bombing civilians. It’s also targeting the laws and values that protect human rights.

Illustration of a black mask and a camoflauge-print mask blending together.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Red Cross packages are lined up along the sidewalk in Serhiivka, a small town in the southwestern corner of Ukraine. A man is unloading plastic bags stamped World Central Kitchen from a truck whose front windshield has been completely shattered. On the other side of the plaza, people are sifting through used clothes provided by a Ukrainian charity. Someone points out a mother standing beside two young boys who, miraculously, were not at home the night that their apartment was destroyed. They are alive, but they have lost everything. She is holding up a pair of children’s jeans; perhaps they will fit one of her sons.

Three days earlier, on the night of July 1, Russian planes dropped three huge bombs on Serhiivka. One hit a nine-story apartment building. Another hit a recreational center and boarding house. By the time I arrived, much of the debris—concrete rubble, broken glass, burnt metal, swimming-pool tiles—had already been cleared. But the residents who remained alive, and not in a hospital, were still present, trying to figure out how to continue.

If you haven’t heard of Serhiivka, that’s not surprising. A very modest vacation community—resort is too grand a word—it sits in the Dniester River delta, alongside a lagoon that opens up into the Black Sea. If you haven’t heard of the bombing of Serhiivka, that’s not surprising either. Random attacks on random places, far from the front lines and with no military significance whatsoever, are now a daily occurrence in Ukraine. According to Oleksander Chechytko, a prosecutor who was collecting evidence in Serhiivka when I visited, three Kh-22 bombs hit the town on the night of July 1. The Kh-22 is an anti-ship missile produced in the 1960s. It was designed to hit warships, but there are no warships in Serhiivka. There are no military objects in Serhiivka at all, Chechytko told me. The nearest military installation, he said, is at least five kilometers away.

Even if Serhiivka had any strategic assets, the use of an imprecise Kh-22 missile on a residential area would have constituted a war crime, a deliberate attack on civilians. On that basis an investigation began as soon as the bombs hit. A group of international war-crimes experts traveled immediately to Serhiivka. Chechytko is part of another team from Odesa, a couple of hours’ drive away, that has been preparing for this new task with online courses and training sessions. He is carrying a folder full of instructions, checklists, forms that will be needed if Ukraine brings a case to the International Criminal Court. He and his team have been testing the soil for fragments of the missiles, photographing the damage, consulting with military officials who were tracking the planes on radar, and documenting the fate of the 22 dead and 39 wounded. Investigators already know which unit the pilots came from and who gave the order for the attack.

The deep, unanswerable question is whether war crime is even the correct term for what happened in Serhiivka. In truth, the war in Ukraine now has a different nature than most of the wars we have seen this century. In the eastern part of the country, soldiers on both sides fight for territory on either side of a discernible front line. But elsewhere in Ukraine, something else is happening, something that looks less like war and more like multiple acts of terrorism. According to the U.S. criminal code, terrorist acts are “violent acts” with these goals:

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policies of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.

If terrorism is defined as an intimidation campaign using violence, then the bombing of Serhiivka was terrorism. So was the June 27 bombing of Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, when another Kh-22 anti-ship missile hit a shopping mall, killing at least 20 people. Terrorism could also describe the repeated use of cluster munitions in residential areas of Kharkiv, bombs that splinter into hundreds of fragments, causing death and injury, leaving traces across playgrounds and courtyards. Terrorism is also a good word for the July 10 attack on Chasiv Yar, where multiple rockets struck a five-story apartment building and emergency services spent many hours digging residents out of the rubble.

Russia is not pursuing traditional war aims in any of these places. No infantry assault on Serhiivka or Kremenchuk is under way. The Russian military’s planned occupation of Kharkiv failed several months ago. There is no scenario in which an apartment block in Chasiv Yar poses a threat to Russia or Russians, let alone the Russian army. Instead, the purpose of attacking these places is to create fear and anger in those towns and across the country. Perhaps the ultimate goal is to persuade Ukraine to stop fighting, although—as was the case in Britain during the Second World War—the bombardment of civilians seems to have had the opposite effect. Over time, many Ukrainians have become more accustomed to the raids, more determined to withstand them. In the Odesa City Garden, an elegant park that dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, people didn’t move, didn’t stop drinking coffee, didn’t even pause mid-sentence when air-raid sirens went off in the early evening last week.

But if the bombing campaign is not part of a “war,” as we normally understand it, that doesn’t mean it has no purpose. On the contrary, it seeks to achieve several goals. One of them may be to persuade people to leave, to become refugees, to become a burden and perhaps a political problem for Ukraine’s neighbors. Clearly the bombs are also meant to impoverish Ukrainians, to prevent them from rebuilding, to weaken their state, to persuade their compatriots who are abroad not to come home. Who wants to return to a country that features on the evening news every few nights, as another bomb falls on another apartment building or shopping mall? Who will invest in a place of smashed rooftops and broken glass? Sowing such doubts is a classic goal of terrorism too.

We Americans and Europeans are used to thinking of terrorism as something involving fertilizer bombs or improvised weapons, and of terrorists as fringe extremists who operate conspiratorially in irregular gangs. When we speak of state-sponsored terrorism, we are usually talking about clandestine groups that are supported, covertly, by a recognized state, in the way that Iran supports Hezbollah. But Russia’s war in Ukraine blurs the distinction among all of these things—terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism, war crimes—for nothing about the bombing of Serhiivka, or Kremenchuk, or Kharkiv, is surreptitious, conspiratorial, or fringe.

Instead Russia, a legitimate, recognized world power—a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—is directing constant, repetitive, visible terrorist violence against civilians, many of whom are nowhere near the fighting. The attacks are not errors or accidents. The planes carrying bombs can be tracked on radar screens. Occasionally, Moscow issues denials—the shopping-mall bombing was, like many others, described by Russian state media as “faked”—but no apologies. The Russian army will not punish the murderers. On the contrary, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has already awarded medals to the brigade that committed so many atrocities in the town of Bucha.

In truth, Russian bombs are targeting not only random people, shops, medical buildings, pets. They are also targeting the whole apparatus of international law governing war crimes, human rights, and terrorism. With every bomb that Russian forces knowingly drop on an apartment building, and every missile they direct at a school or hospital, they are demonstrating their scorn and contempt for the global institutions Russia was once so desperate to join. The Ukrainian and international lawyers and prosecutors who are collecting the evidence will, in the end, be able to present not just one or two cases demonstrating war crimes, but thousands. Russia’s war is unprecedented, and the demand for justice in its aftermath will be unprecedented too.

Can we do more? The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called Russia a “terrorist state” and other prominent officials, including some in the U.S. Senate, have called for the United States and Europe to formally designate Russia as such. This would bring serious legal consequences, including for Russian companies and other entities that are not already under sanctions. The main argument against this idea is not trivial: Russia is too big to cut out of the world economy, or to exclude from all international conversations. But also important is calling things by their real names, getting used to difficult new ideas, and learning how to deal with them. Russia is now carrying out acts of terrorism every day; this will have consequences for the rickety structure of international laws and practices that are designed to prevent such acts.

And not only for the laws and structures: In truth, Russian forces are also targeting the values that lie behind them, the principles and even the emotions that led people to create them in the first place. Compassion, a sense of shared humanity, an instinct that children do not deserve to be victims of war, an assumption that people who are not harming you or your nation deserve to live normal lives—all of these moral assumptions have been cast aside by an army determined to create pointless, cruel, individual tragedies, one after the next. The Serhiivka bombing alone created so many of them. The middle-aged woman, six months pregnant, whose legs were burned by the bomb. The elderly woman, disoriented, waiting for her Red Cross package because she could do nothing else. The refugee from the first Donbas war in 2014, who was knocked unconscious by the bombing, taken to a hospital and never recovered. The beloved soccer coach who was visiting Serhiivka to run a summer camp, and was hit by one of the bombs while he slept.

Each one of these stories has wider echoes, touching people who were far away at the time. Quite by accident, I was in Odesa a few days later talking with a local official about something different, the possible demining of Odesa’s port. Serhiivka somehow came up.

His face changed. He knew the coach, a former employee, a star athlete who had tried to enter the world of business, found it dull, and returned to soccer. He also knew that the coach had two children. “I was filled with horror when I thought they might have been there with him,” he told me. “And then I realized that it didn’t matter whose children were there—his children, or someone else’s children—the horror would be the same.”