For the Kremlin, war crimes are not mistakes but tactics

In Ukraine, Russian aggression is aimed at destabilising the country and destroying its drive towards democracy.

Donetsk remand prison employees stand guard along a corridor at a remand prison in Donetsk,
Prison guards stand guard along a corridor at a prison in Donetsk on December 11, 2014 [File: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov]

In 2014, Izolatsiya, the only contemporary arts centre in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, was seized by Moscow-backed militants and was transformed into a secret detention centre. The memoirs of Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev, who spent close to three years at the facility, have recently been published in English and make for harrowing reading.

He describes torture, rape and various degrading mistreatment that Ukrainians were subjected to. “I would have signed any confession they put before me. All I wanted was to be shot – such was the depth of my despair,” Aseyev wrote.

This is what happens when Russia occupies your country: lively public spaces celebrating life and culture become lawless black holes of pain and suffering.

For the Kremlin, war crimes are not mistakes but tactics. It gains and retains control of a region by rounding up vocal minorities and exposing them to brutal treatment. This sends a message to the passive majority to stay silent. Anyone that might sound the alarm – usually rights activists – is forced into exile or detained. Try to find any human rights organisations in Kremlin’s client entities like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Crimea that do not suffer systematic persecution. You won’t find any.

Our organisation, Center for Civil Liberties, was forced to stop observation work in the occupied territories in the summer of 2014, as the high risk to our monitors and their interlocutors was too high. Before we halted activities there, our colleagues informed us that the separatists who called themselves “liberators” were very much characters like their commander Igor Strelkov, who took part in the bloody violence in Transnistria and Chechnya in the 1990s.

Still, we have spoken to people who were tortured, raped, mutilated and forced into making false confessions in the dungeons of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. We have also continued to follow the tragic fates of civilians arrested and abused in illegal detention centres.

Lyudmila Huseinova, a children’s rights advocate suspected of pro-Ukrainian sympathies, is entering her third year of detention in inhumane conditions. Natalia Statsenko, a doctor who has been jailed since 2019 over accusations of espionage, is suffering such acute spinal pain that her parents are worried she will soon die if she does not receive treatment.

These are just a few of the estimated 300 political prisoners held in separatist-controlled territories, according to the Ukrainian ombudsman. People who live in grey zones like this have no access to legal mechanisms to defend themselves. The Ukrainian government maintains that even the International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to detainees languishing in Donbas prisons.

Understandably the world is now focusing on the Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border, surrounding the country with some 140,000 troops. But it is important to remember that since 2014 a whole chunk of Ukrainian territory has been cut off from the rest of the country by an iron curtain and run by proxy armed groups bankrolled by Vladimir Putin’s regime.

What is happening now at Ukraine’s border is not about “geopolitics” – it is about defending democracy and stopping an authoritarian model from expanding. Ukraine happens to be at the forefront of this battle and it needs help. If we do not stop Putin now, he will find another target soon, perhaps in the heart of the European Union.

In the Donbas, we have witnessed the grim consequences of Russian aggression: health and social services deteriorating, children being taught propaganda in schools, parents languishing in jails, and a permanent state of lawlessness plaguing the civilian population.

Moscow does not care for the wellbeing of anyone in these territories, regardless of their “allegiance”. The sole purpose of the aggression is to sow division, distract the Ukrainian government and drain its resources until eventually it comes back into the fold.

These days Kyiv is a surreal place. We pretend to live a normal life. People go to work, go shopping, go to cinema or the gym and then in the evening they come home, sit for dinner and explain to their kids what to do if Russian bombs start raining down tomorrow. The civil society has also mobilised and started disseminating information about what to do in the event of an evacuation or an internet shutdown.

Ukrainians are resilient but they do need help. If Russia does invade, the United States and the EU should immediately impose comprehensive economic sanctions, targeting the Russian financial sector, borrowing capacity, trade in energy and goods.

Dialogue is important, even though the Kremlin sees it as a sign of weakness. Ultimately Putin understands only the language of force, so Ukraine’s European partners must show their readiness to counter military threats and increase the cost of invasion.

One of the aims of the Kremlin’s military threats is to destabilise the Ukrainian government. That is why it is essential to provide support for Ukraine’s economy, which has already suffered immensely from the Russian aggression threat.

Ukraine needs help with its reform agenda as well. After the 2014 Maidan revolution overthrew the kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovich, the country embarked on a transformation towards a democratic regime based on the rule of law. Putin invaded Ukraine to derail these efforts. He is not concerned about the expansion of NATO; he hates the idea of being surrounded by people free to choose their future and to hold elites accountable.

For this reason, it is also important that the Ukrainian government and institutions driving this reform agenda forward receive adequate help and assistance. A well-functioning democracy in Ukraine threatens Putin’s regime, as Ukrainian prosperity and wellbeing would inspire Russians to seek the same for themselves. That is why, when in December, Russian human rights group Memorial was shut down and we asked how we could help them, they responded: “Be successful”.

Russia and Ukraine’s fates seem intertwined, but they move at different speeds. The world should not wait for Russia to democratise and abandon Ukraine in the meantime. Our country is already on the right track and should be supported in its efforts to build a successful and thriving democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.