Using War Crimes to Intimidate

A contentious use of propaganda is the practice of using war crimes to intimidate the population of a country under attack.

News about the violence of an attack can have the effect of intimidating the people who are experiencing it, making them readier to negotiate a peace deal that is favourable to the attacker.  This is especially true if the attacker is committing war crimes, such as those reported by Reuters to have almost certainly occurred in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022:

“An initial report by a mission of experts set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe documents a “catalogue of inhumanity” by Russian troops in Ukraine, according to the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE.

“This includes evidence of direct targeting of civilians, attacks on medical facilities, rape, executions, looting and forced deportation of civilians to Russia,” Michael Carpenter said.”

There is also little doubt that Russia is using intimidation as a strategy in Ukraine, appointing the same general to follow a pattern that he had previously used in Syria, according to a Geopolitical Futures report:

“In Syria, Dvornikov understood that Russia was fighting a diffused infantry force with deep ties to the
populations of the areas they were fighting in, so he launched a war on those populations focusing
his resources not on the fighters themselves but on their friends and families. He meant to terrify
them and thus instill a deep desire to end the war.”

Russia’s actions in Ukraine are not the only example of using war crimes to intimidate.  An article referred to earlier, Sierra Leone, 2000: A Case History in Successful Interventionism, described how the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) committed dreadful atrocities there.  The invading army in these situations hopes that populations will be too frightened to resist it and will beg for peace at any price.  It is the wartime equivalent of a State’s domestic abuse of power against its own people (7.2.4).

It is a tactic which can give a short-term local advantage to the attacking commander.  As described earlier, though, there are serious adverse consequences elsewhere: it increases the resistance in the wider population of the country being attacked (, and it attracts the support of other countries to help to resist the invader (  And the reputational damage to the attacker delegitimises its political control of any territory it acquires.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7433.htm.