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Mariupol May be Destroyed in Ukraine War But Stalingrad Taught Us Even Ruins can be Defended

Do Counterpunch, Março 22, 2022
Por PATRICK COCKBURN





The view of Old Tower (Mariupol) and a dome of Orthodox Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. Photograph Source: Mrpl.travel – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russian bombardment of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities is similar to the Russian-backed Syrian government shelling and bombing of rebel-held districts in Damascus and Aleppo over the last decade.

It is also not much different from the American air force bombing of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, Israel’s bombing of Gaza and Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen over the same period. These attacks are all supposedly aimed at military targets and all kill civilians in their thousands.

This is not to let the Russians off the hook when it comes to war crimes, since striking at Ukrainian cities to depopulate and ultimately capture them appears to be the principal Russian tactic at present. This enables them to keep up a generalised pressure on the Ukrainians without much military cost to themselves, though the political price will be heavy and perhaps unsustainable for Moscow in the long term.

The assault on Mariupol may not have the impact of the destruction of Guernica – the anti-Franco Basque town bombed by the German air force in 1937 duing the Spanish Civil War, and the subject of the most widely-recognised anti-fascist painting by Picasso. But there will be many more shattered cities like Mariupol and each one will have schools and bomb shelters blown apart with the dead and wounded instantly pictured on cellphones and sent around the world.

Do the Russians deliberately target civilians? It is unlikely but it is inevitable that they will hit them once a general bombardment starts. Air and artillery forces claim that their weapons these days are deadly accurate in a way that was not true in the past, but this evades the most important question when it comes to the cause of civilian loss of life: those employing mass firepower against cities do not know where the enemy is, so they fire at almost everything.

There are other more culpable reasons for a mass bombardment: to terrify civilians, show who has the power to kill or maim them, and drive them from their homes. It is not essential to capture all of a city such as rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria to stop it being regional hub for administration, commerce, information and military resistance. If enough of the population is driven out, and the infrastructure, such as electricity and water supply, destroyed, then it will cease to be a useful centre for the other side.

Bombing and shelling is therefore always in the nature of a collective punishment of civilians, whatever the perpetrators pretend. People imagine that the mass destruction is caused primarily by bombing from the air, but in Syria and Ukraine sustained artillery fire is the more usual culprit.

Does it work? Being under relentless fire for days means that nervous tension never eases. During the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war (1975-90), the capital Beirut was under constant shellfire so that its inhabitants had a map hard-wired into their brains as to which streets were safer than others. But nothing was entirely safe.

I remember being caught in an artillery barrage near Beirut airport and, as the shells started dropping nearer and nearer, going into a house to ask if we could shelter in their basement. “No basement,” they said, so we threw ourselves down and the closest shell threw sand over us but missed the house. A year earlier our car had gone into a shell hole filled with dirty grey water, so we could not see the crater and had to abandon the car, which was later wrecked by a shell.

These sort of experiences were happening to Lebanese the whole time and they did, to a degree, get used to a high degree of danger in their life, largely because they did not have any choice in the matter. Civilian morale never collapsed because of the war. Syria thirty years later was different because the Syrian government surrounded rebel districts and pounded them until the trapped civilians who survived fled to Turkey and Lebanon.

Militarily, from the point of view of those besieging an urban district or a city, the destroying of buildings and turning them into heaps of rubble is a two-edged achievement because the ruins may be easy to defend and difficult to assault.

Shattered buildings, broken concrete, collapsed tower blocks – these are the sort of terrain suitable for lone snipers and small units lying in ambush, as the German army discovered to its cost in Stalingrad in 1942/43. But much the same happened in Mosul and Raqqa, the Islamic State de facto capitals in Iraq and Syria, in 2016/17.

Isis had built a series of strong points in houses, often linked by underground passages, which they would use to snipe and launch surprise attacks before swiftly abandoning them before the house was hit by a retaliatory air strike. They were only dislodged when most of the old city of Mosul was pulverised into ruins with horrendous civilian casualties. The fact that there was so little international reaction to this was because Isis was widely demonised and did not care much about civilian casualties.

I doubt if the same thing could happen in Ukraine over a long period because the atrocities will be more visible than in Mosul. Moreover, the original Russian tactics appear to have failed, so they have fallen back on shelling and bombings because they were unable to surround, still less capturing, Ukrainian cities.

Even if they are badly battered, this does not mean that these cities will surrender or that Russia will be able to hold them without installing embattled garrisons amid the ruins


Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).

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