The logic behind the terror: Why does Ukraine keep attacking civilian areas in Donetsk?
At least ten rockets hit central areas of Donetsk on Saturday morning, damaging three residential buildings, a local Russian official has reported in his Telegram channel.
One of the projectiles fired by Ukrainian forces hit an apartment building in the Kievsky district. While rescuers continue to search for survivors under the rubble, preliminary information suggests that there were three people in one of the apartments.
There was no information on casualties at the time of writing, but the absence of victims would be unusual; indeed, Ukrainian shelling of the capital of the Donetsk People's Republic intensified weeks before the Russian attack in February 2022, and has taken a heavy toll ever since.
The suffering of Donbass residents
According to the human rights commissioner of the DPR, Daria Morozova, at least 1,091 civilians were killed and another 3,533 were recorded as injured last year as a result of combat operations. The figures do not include places such as Mariupol, where the full scale of the tragedy has yet to be assessed.
The 4,624 people mentioned above were victims of regular artillery strikes on urban areas of Donetsk and Gorlovka.
When Donetsk residents are asked why the Ukrainian Armed Forces continue to attack civilians, people usually have no explanation other than the desire of the Ukrainian government and military to destroy Donbass and its people. This is supported by a massive campaign to dehumanize local residents and a number of hateful statements by Ukrainian politicians. “We will kill them with nuclear weapons,” warned former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, while ex-president Pyotr Poroshenko has vowed: “Our children will go to school, while their children will go sit in basements. That’s how we will win this war.”
Ukrainian forces continue to bomb Donbass despite the shortage of shells experienced by both sides of the conflict. However, while Russia can solve this issue by activating its military-industrial complex, Ukraine is entirely dependent on foreign supplies.
It should make a lot more sense for Ukraine to use scarce ammunition on military targets rather than on peaceful residential areas. Even if a lot of the time, Kiev's forces misfire. A typical example is a Ukrainian shell landing in the frozen Kalmius River that divides Donetsk.
How Ukraine explains the attacks
Whenever Ukrainian artillery hits a civilian object – for example, a flower market – or kills civilians, officials in Kiev deny it. Unofficial voices resort to false claims that no such thing ever happened. Over the past eight years, the latter have come up with several memes allegedly proving that the Ukrainian Army wasn’t involved – with explanations such as “the air conditioner exploded.” Even if Ukrainian forces manage to hit a military facility, such as a warehouse, they usually deny involvement, claiming that “someone smoked in the wrong place” and that the explosion wasn’t related to the conflict. Thus, an information environment is created that denies the fact that Kiev attacks cities.
The Ukrainian side claims the attacks on civilians are “self-inflicted” – implying that the Russian Army attacks cities under its control, supposedly to blame Ukrainian forces and demonize them in the eyes of the population, as well as for propaganda purposes. This kind of post-truth has given rise to a whole area of fact-checking, where journalists collaborate with open-source intelligence to calculate the trajectory of the strikes.
For Donbass residents, all this is extremely painful. Discussions of terrorist attacks on civilian infrastructure often end in profanities. According to Donbass locals, Ukrainians keep on attacking Donetsk simply because they can. Meanwhile, people are just trying to survive and are waiting for the front to move away from the area. Other details don’t concern them.
However, this is a distorted view of the situation; there is every reason to believe that the regular shelling of cities in Donbass is part of Ukrainian strategy and follows military logic. Perhaps Kiev’s “hybrid war” era military doctrine has adopted terrorist methods. So, how do these attacks on the civilian population help Ukraine?
Let’s take a clear example. In June 2022, the units of the first corps of the People’s Militia of the DPR were dislodged from their permanent locations because of the battle for Lisichansk – they had to storm a huge section of the front from Popasnaya to Verkhnekamenka, moving from south to north. The Russian Armed Forces then lacked personnel and had to use troops from Donetsk. Ukraine intensified strikes on the city to force the leadership to return the units back to their locations.
A similar thing is happening now. Some areas are under pressure – in particular, the fighters of the Wagner Group are pressing in Soledar and Artyomovsk (known in Ukraine as Bakhmut). They are advancing backed by the artillery of the Russian Armed Forces. Ukrainians use civilian strikes to provoke politicians, hoping that they will influence the military and interfere with the army’s plans. In June, this plan failed and the Ukrainians, taking advantage of the lack of counter-battery fire in the Donetsk region, committed a number of atrocities.
Commenting on the situation in a private conversation, one fighter explained why the army didn't take the bait: “Normally, no military man – from simple soldier to general – suffers if the enemy attacks the city. This sounds harsh, but it’s better for the enemy to attack the city than the army’s manpower. This would be the usual military logic, but there is one key detail: 95% of our corps are made up of local residents who are worried about their cities. So, after completing the mission in Lisichansk, our soldiers were very angry when they got back to Donetsk.”
This is all very close to home for fighters from Donbass. In the case of a fast-paced conflict without a stable front line, such attacks would have motivated the soldiers, by enraging them. Perhaps this explains the near-complete silence of the Ukrainian artillery in the first month of the Russian military campaign. In those days, when the front line was mobile, it was better not to further motivate the enemy.
However, in positional warfare, fighters are conscious of a permanent threat to their relatives and other civilians in their hometowns. Motivated warriors who identify themselves as “defenders” feel as if they don’t have enough strength to break through. This acts to discourage. Concern for those who are not on the front line returns the soldier to his other life, behind the front lines, and distracts him from battle. By itself, this does not break morale, but soldiers are also affected by constant adrenaline swings, a risk of death or injury to themselves or their brothers in arms, the cold and damp conditions, the monotony of their work (for example, a good soldier digs more often than shoots), and numerous other factors.
Russia doesn’t have a strong memory of World War I – it has been replaced by that of World War II. However, the current fighting resembles the trench warfare of the early 20th century. With the possibility to adjust and fine-tune firing using Chinese drones and the chance to search the internet for how to repair military equipment. The rest of it – mud, trenches, the frozen front line – is like World War I, including politicians demanding a large-scale and ambitious offensive.
Why can’t the strikes be stopped?
At the end of July 2022, such an event began in the Donetsk region. Its main goal was to free the city from artillery strikes. The Donetsk corps were successful for several days, but then became stuck in positional battles. By the end of January, six months into the operation, the army had barely advanced 10km (6 miles).
The fighters were unable to break through the pre-established line of defense, and the forces only managed to wedge and slowly push through the three lines of fortifications near the villages of Vodianoye and Opitnoe, north of Donetsk airport. However, the fighters cannot give up on storming these fortifications – the strikes on Donetsk and Makeyevka must end for good.
As a result, there have been signs of an emerging contradiction. On the one hand, military leaders who are interested in achieving military goals and saving manpower, and on the other, politicians who express the interests of the civilian population and want to put a swift end to the artillery terror. Politicians want the public to like them. They don’t want to deal with the consequences of hostilities, hoping for things to return to normal so they can receive funding to restore the affected regions. As a result, they view the situation quite differently from the military.
Through manipulation, propaganda and informational and psychological influence, Ukrainians have made cunning use of the differences between civilian and military interests. This comes down to a grotesque choice between “killing the army in Avdeevka” and “allowing the Ukrainian Armed Forces to wipe Donetsk off the face of the Earth.” If politicians push the army to force the assault, the latter will make more mistakes, which will reduce their power. This, in turn, favors Kiev.
Perhaps seeking rational reasons behind the artillery strikes in Donbass is pointless – maybe it’s just the manifestation of rage on behalf of Ukrainian nationalists. However, if we ask ourselves “who benefits from this,” there is a creeping suspicion that terrorizing the population with NATO ammunition is a strategy initiated by Ukraine’s top military leadership. Firstly, these attacks tie up the forces of the Russian Army and distract it from concentrating on other areas. Secondly, they negatively affect the combat spirit of the fighters from Donbass. And finally, they allow political factors to intervene in military strategy, dealing a serious blow to its quality.