As I write, rescuers are still searching the remains of a shopping centre in the central Ukrainian town of Kremenchuk. There were hundreds of people inside the centre when Russian missiles hit it on Monday. The number of casualties is still unclear, but there are 20 confirmed deaths and tens of unidentified bodies. The mall was miles away from any military target. There could be no other reason to attack it than to spread fear and terror in Ukraine. The Russian military hit it with two missiles, ensuring devastating damage.
G7 countries unanimously condemned those attacks, as they should. But unless the world puts a meaningful political and legal definition to these atrocities, such condemnations will very quickly be forgotten by the general public. The world needs to comprehend that along with a ruthless military operation Russia conducts indiscriminate attacks on non-military targets: this is terrorist activity. We need to distinguish it and qualify it as such.
Most people think of terrorism as an asymmetric tactic of political coercion pursued by rogue political organisations or insurgent groups against a more powerful adversary. In this case, it is pursued by a major state power against a smaller nation. But the goals and methods are the same.
This is not the first time in this war that Russia has attacked civilian infrastructure. There were other attacks earlier this week, the most publicised on a block of flats in Kyiv at around 6am. I understand one family has been hit particularly hard, with the father killed and the mother and seven-year-old daughter wounded. A kindergarten was another target on the same day; thankfully it was empty.
The world was shocked by the shopping centre tragedy, but Russia did not stop. It sent more missiles on Tuesday and Wednesday, hitting the coastal towns of Mykolaiv and Ochakiv with 11 on Tuesday. One struck housing in Ochakiv, wounding six people, including children. A baby is now in a coma. There were three fatalities, including a six-year-old. Rescuers are still sifting through the rubble. Later, Russia fired 11 more missiles at the city of Dnipro, and on Wednesday it hit a tower block in Mykolaiv again, leaving five wounded and three dead.
It is relentless. These are just examples from the past couple of days. Ukrainian citizens hear air raid alarms daily, and for months we have had horrific missile attacks on civilians in seemingly random cities, towns and villages. Russia’s vast stockpiles of missiles are being emptied on to Ukrainian territory on an industrial scale. The staggering number of hits on sites with no strategic or military value leaves us in no doubt as to the true purpose of the strikes.
Some of the targets are well known: the rail station full of refugees in Kramatorsk and tower blocks in Chernihiv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. A school in Kharkiv. A maternity hospital in Mariupol. Many more cases are much less known. The lists of the civilian buildings hit and the tragedies of the people who are affected are updated daily.
Hundreds of children’s deaths have been confirmed in Ukraine, but within the occupied territories many more deaths remain unknown. As a result, people there are buried in unidentified graves, and often not buried at all.
Russia has not denied that it was behind the strikes in these cases. On the contrary, sometimes it provides hasty explanations, mainly for its domestic audience. In the case of the shopping centre, a defence ministry spokesman claimed that Russia had hit a military target and fire had then spread to an empty shopping mall. Of course, video exists apparently showing the direct hit on the mall.
These are seemingly random attacks that go alongside the more focused horrors we see in cities such as Mariupol. Five months ago, it was a thriving coastal city of half a million. Since then, Russian planes and missiles have been razing it building by building. An unknown number of people, but certainly tens of thousands, sometimes entire families, were buried under the wreckage.
Russians use these destructive tactics in all their advances in Ukraine. These entail attacking cities from the air, then with multiple rocket launchers and artillery, and then with tanks. Infantry come in only when there is not much left to defend.
Just recently, they took the industrial city of Severodonetsk after destroying most of it. They are doing the same with their next target, Lysychansk. Although these assaults are nominally made as part of a military operation, as with the attacks on the shopping centre and apartment blocks in cities where no combat is taking place, they routinely hit targets with no connection to military infrastructure. The targets do not further any immediate operational objective.
The definition of terrorism is a deliberate, indiscriminate attack on civilians with a political goal. That is precisely what Russia is doing. With grim cynicism, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has suggested stopping the strikes immediately if Ukraine capitulates. Of course, Ukraine will not, but that comment once more confirms the Russian regime’s complete understanding of its actions and comprehensive control over this madness.
Amazingly, despite their total condemnation of Russia’s brutality, democratic countries still do not formally recognise it as a terrorist state or “state sponsor of terrorism”. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, has repeatedly asked our allies to do this since March. The only country that responded was Lithuania, which declared Russia a terrorist state on 10 May. Just a few days ago, the US Senate’s foreign relations committee advanced a resolution declaring that Russia was a state sponsor of terrorism and recommending the US government formally recognise it as such.
After the Kremenchuk tragedy hit the news, Zelenskiy made that appeal again. What, exactly, is the world waiting for?
Recognising Russia as a terrorist state is not just a political statement: it also has substantial legal consequences. No one in the west will do business with terrorists. The respective government and business policies exist in almost every corporate code of conduct or democratic state law. That recognition would help stop Russia from making the financial revenue necessary to keep funding the war. It would significantly undermine the Russian war effort – not soon, but in the long run.
What is the point of all previous anti-terrorism efforts and legal and political frameworks if they cannot be used here? Or are there special privileges for high-income terrorist states? Or are some lives not meaningful enough?
I sincerely hope the world will not hesitate much longer.