Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has killed thousands of innocent people, including women and children. Why were they killed? Why have large numbers of innocent people been killed down the ages, all around the world?

I am not talking about personal, individual murders, where a man might kill another man who slept with his girlfriend or cut him off at the traffic lights or had some money he wanted to take. I am talking about institutionalised killings of large numbers of people. I can think of three reasons. Here they are in descending order of evil.

1. Innocent people are killed because of their birth, because of what they are not because of what they do, because of factors they cannot change.

2. They are killed as an act of terror, to make the enemy surrender and submit to your demands. In this case, killing little children and women is effective because it heightens the terror.

3. They are killed because your action will inevitably kill them as an incidental consequence, not because you intend to kill them.

Here are some examples.

Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine is an example of Reason 1. If you invade a country with 180,000 troops and a huge tank force, it is impossible to avoid killing a multitude of innocent men, women and children. Can you justify this if your cause is good? When Chamberlain declared war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, he knew it would lead to the killing of innocent people on a large scale, but I believe his cause was good. Nazi Germany had by that time given ample proof of its evilness, and there was every reason to believe it would get worse. Almost the only way Britain could fight Germany with Germany’s superior army was to bomb German cities with Britain’s superior bombing planes, which inevitably led to the slaughter of innocent German people. I believe Putin’s cause is completely unjust, and condemn his invasion outright.

There are many examples in history of Reason 2, using terror by killing innocent people as a political tool. The most spectacular example is Genghis Khan and his grandsons, who probably killed a larger proportion of the world’s population at the time than anybody else in history. The Khans would invade a country, besiege its capital city and tell its leader to surrender or face the slaughter of all its subjects. At first some did not surrender. The Khanate army, led by mounted archers, probably the most ferocious and feared fighters of all time, would then storm the city, kill every last man, woman and child, and build a big pyramid of severed heads for all to see. This strategy worked well. After a while everybody surrendered, and the Khans, who were not racists or religious fanatics, would let the conquered people lead peaceful lives under their control. 

What would have been a correct moral attitude of a country’s leader faced with this ultimatum? Should he surrender, face being called a traitor and a coward, and save innocent people? Or should he fight bravely, cause the death of innocent people, and face being called an irresponsible egotist who placed his own vainglory above the lives of others?

Britain’s bombing of Germany began as a way of reducing her military production by wrecking her factories and transport systems. It was a failure. Because of inadequate technology at the time, only about 3% of the bombs hit the targets. Most hit houses and hospitals. It then looks as if Britain simply resorted to terror bombing, to killing vast numbers of German civilians to break their morale and induce them to surrender. This failed too, although some informed people, including Albert Speer, said it might have worked had the bombing been even more intense, as it was over Japan in 1945. The terror bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons was a spectacular success, probably saving over 20 million Japanese lives, ending a ghastly war, and eventually leading to democracy and prosperity in Japan.

I don’t think Putin deliberately killed Ukrainian citizens for Reason 2. But it does look as if he hoped his invasion itself would terrorise the Ukraine into collapsing quickly and surrendering to his demands. This hope was immediately dashed. Ukrainians fought back fiercely, bravely and effectively. Their leader, Zelensky, who had had very low approval ratings before the invasion, suddenly became a great hero – at home and abroad – while Putin descended from being a murderous gangster to being a murderous tyrant.

As for Reason 1, the killing of people because of their birth, I can think of only one pure example, which was Hitler’s killing of Jews and other peoples. He, and a horrifyingly large number of his colleagues and sympathisers, inside and outside Germany, thought these people should be murdered because of who they were. Reasons 2 and 3 do not apply to Hitler. He did not use terror to defeat an enemy. He simply slaughtered peoples. He placed their extermination ahead of his own victory. 

When his Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Slavic people in the Ukraine and other victims of Russian Marxist rule greeted them like saviours coming to rescue them from the horrors of communism. They welcomed the German invaders. Hitler would have had a massive advantage over Moscow if he had befriended these people, who would have been happy to fight for him. Instead he ordered them to be slaughtered. He thought it better to be beaten by Russia and kill Jews than to beat Russia and let Jews live. When the “final solution” began in full in the late years of the war, Hitler diverted vast resources that could have been used in fighting the allies into the mass extermination of Jews and others in his huge archipelago of death camps, thus hastening his defeat and suicide.

The closest other approaches to Reason 1 come from Africa. The cold-blooded, systematic, carefully planned slaughter of 300,000 Hutu (the majority race) in Burundi by the minority Tutsi government in 1972 had some elements of Nazi evil but not all. Tutsi extermination squads would go into schools, pick out all Hutu boys and girls, and murder them with guns and sledgehammers. But this was the use of terror for a political end. This was to discourage the Hutu from ever attempting to gain full democratic majority rule, as they had tried rather feebly before. Their aim was to enslave the majority race, not exterminate them. The same is true of the genocidal Tutsi killer, Paul Kagame, who now rules Rwanda. His intention when he invaded Rwanda was to conquer and enslave the majority Hutu people there. He didn’t care if his invasion led to more genocide, which it did. He achieved his aims. Rwanda is now a super-apartheid, racist Tutsi dictatorship, much admired by Western leaders and investors.

Putin definitely does not use Reason 1. He is not Hitler. He is not even Paul Kagame. But he has caused great evil. Up until 24 February, I had some sympathy with him. I have spent a grand total of one week in Russia (in Moscow and Voronezh); I have spoken to a few dozen Russians. That’s it. My ignorance is almost total. My reading of Russia since 1989 was that the Soviet Empire collapsed quickly and peacefully, and Russia should have been treated gently and sympathetically by the West, which she was not. Things fell apart and chaos reigned. Yeltsin was corrupt and brutal. 

The KGB converted easily into the Mafia, jettisoning the wicked nonsense of Marxism for the venal love of money. Putin emerged as the head gangster, the Don of Dons, in 1999, and I had thought did a reasonable job in ruling by controlled corruption, rather as Walpole did so successfully in England in the 18th Century. I sympathised with his complaint against the aggressive expansion of NATO in Russia’s backyard. America would never allow a similar expansion of Russia’s military allies in her backyard. But that does not come close to justifying the invasion of the Ukraine. Now any of my sympathy for Putin has gone. He seems to have been far more ruthlessly corrupt than I had imagined, and hungrier for power and legacy, as if he wants to become another Ivan the Terrible as well as making great piles of money. But he is not Hitler, and should not be judged as such.


Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.