Artillery types

Matt Gurney: Russian heavy artillery would unleash all the inhumanity of war on Ukraine

If winning means leveling a few Ukrainian cities with heavy rocket fire and bombardment, does anyone think Putin will hesitate?

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It’s been hard to watch the images coming out of Ukraine, on mainstream media but especially on social media, and not be inspired by the incredible courage, emotional strength and remarkably irreverent sense of humor proof the armed forces and the ordinary civilians of this beleaguered nation.

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It is particularly difficult to know what is likely to happen to so many of them.

The fighting in Ukraine is not the first time we have had the opportunity to see a war in real time. Every war has been documented and covered using the best technology available for that time, from sketches of ancient times to our present 5G. In recent years, increasingly global Internet connectivity and the growing sophistication of smartphones have made it possible to document war and internal conflict in unprecedented detail.

Ukraine, however, looks different.

Perhaps it’s the proportion of English speakers who tour, at least for Western audiences. Undoubtedly, this is at least partly because, to be frank, the Western world cares more about the lives of Westerners than the lives of others. But part of it is undoubtedly attributable to the scale of the conflict. What separates Ukraine from other recent conflicts, besides the lingering threat of nuclear escalation, is the enormity of the fighting. There are, tragically, simply more opportunities for more people to film more combat and destruction. These clips can then be easily uploaded to the internet for the world to see, using Ukraine’s (surprisingly still intact) telecommunications infrastructure.

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Much of the footage we’ve seen so far – the ones that can be verified with reasonable confidence, anyway – has been remarkable, but also somewhat confusing. Those of us with even a certain familiarity (even comfortably academic, in my case) with modern warfare and Russian military capabilities were baffled. As gruesome and heartbreaking as the images emerging from the area are, they are less violent and destructive than many informed observers expected to see. Numerous reports point to logistical problems of the Russian military forces which have slowed their advances and hampered their operations. This may explain part of it: the Russians may be struggling to shift operations into high gear. It seems almost certain, however, that much of this apparent restraint, if that’s the word, reflects a massive failure by Russian intelligence to understand the war their troops were undertaking.

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A big reason the Russians refrained from using their heavy weapons from the start could easily be that they didn’t think they would be needed – that the conquest of Ukraine, or much of it this would be, as Thomas Jefferson wrote of Canada in 1812, “a mere matter of march.”

This did not turn out to be the case. A combination of poor Russian planning, poor Russian preparation, and exceptionally tenacious Ukrainian resistance held off the invaders in most areas. A large part of Ukrainian territory fell into Russian hands, but not the big cities and other strategic points. Again, it’s hard not to take inspiration from it.

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But that inspiration must be weighed against the realization that unless there is a generic negotiated peace or an unpredictable change in Russia’s political circumstances – a member of Putin’s inner circle, annoyed by seizing his yacht, shooting the king, for example – the Russians will compensate for their slow start by increasing the use of their massive firepower. Russian military formations have always been more heavily based on powerful artillery than their Western counterparts. We have yet to see this artillery, including conventional explosive shells, rockets and cluster munitions, used in any major way.

We got an idea of ​​what it might look like on Monday when cluster munitions were used in the city of Kharkiv. Social media quickly filled with photos and videos claiming to show the results; they need not be explained in detail here, suffice it to say that they are as horrific as one would expect when cluster munitions are used against defenseless civilians. But even Monday’s play-off seemed quite limited. If the Russians choose to try to pick up the pace of their largely stalled advance by simply blowing up anything in front of them, they certainly have the technical wherewithal to do so. And one suspects an embarrassed Putin won’t hesitate to give his political endorsement either.

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Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The carnage that could result would be indescribably appalling. But the Russians have done it before, including in Grozny (twice) and across Syria more recently. None of these conflicts was on the scale of what is currently unfolding in Ukraine, and Putin is undeniably personally invested in the “success” of his invasion. It’s not clear he can survive politically, or just survive, if that fails. If winning means leveling a few Ukrainian cities with heavy rocket fire and bombardment, does anyone think they will hesitate?

The Ukrainians seem ready to wage a fierce guerrilla campaign against the invaders. Western countries also seem ready to arm them to the teeth to allow them to do so. Even the best-trained and best-equipped modern military force, and certainly not how we will describe Russia’s, fears becoming entangled in brutal street-by-street urban combat. Such battles are known to bleed invaders. A simple but gruesome way to overcome this is to simply mess up whatever you wish to grab, hoping to break the enemy’s morale or their ability to resist effectively (these aren’t entirely separate things, after all) .

The Russians have more than enough weapons to fight this kind of war. They have a history of doing so. And they have a chef who probably won’t hesitate to allow it. This is not a good thing to consider. But if that happens, all those social media channels that have so far shown heroic acts of resistance could soon show us appalling evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. If that happens, it will be a horrible thing to watch.

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