On Sept. 8, an aerial attack struck the northeastern Sumy region home of the co-author of this article, Maria Marchenko. Ibrahim Al-Marashi watched Instagram footage of the damaged home of one of his Ukrainian students, who had a panic attack as she filmed.
These attacks are part of a calculated Russian strategy: an incessant barrage of ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles, as well as attacks by drones and manned aircraft against Kyiv and other cities. Such a tactic keeps the Ukrainian military’s surface-to-air missile systems stationed around urban centers to protect civilians rather than soldiers on the front lines during its current counteroffensive.
At the same time another counteroffensive began in May, the quotidian resistance of civilians to these attacks. Indeed Kyiv, like London during World War II, endures the Blitz of the 21st century.
Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an international norm for states to prevent genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes. It was developed in the 1990s in response to the failure to protect in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. We – a historian who has taught in Lviv, Ukraine, and a Ukrainian researcher living in Kyiv – seek here to engage in R2R. We present this term to address another, more pernicious term that has developed in the public: “Ukraine fatigue,” a burnout of empathy and compassion for the victims of this war.
Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian urban centers from the air is part of a historical trajectory of coercive bombing that first drew worldwide attention in 1937, when Nazi Germany attacked the city of Guernica in Spain, a rehearsal for the bombing of civilian centers during World War II, such as London during the Blitz. Just as Hitler failed to realize that air raids over the United Kingdom only strengthened the resolve of the British, Russia, in thinking it could demoralize the Ukrainian people from the air, has only sparked defiance and resilience on the ground.
On April 26, 1937, an innovation in modern warfare transpired over the skies of Spain. By “modern,” we mean when the condition of “mass” emerged by the 1500s, resulting in mass cultural changes, such as mass production and mass consumption, complimented by phenomena from mass media to mass transportation. It is embedded in the lexicon of warfare, with terms such as weapons of “mass” destruction, referring to chemical, biological, and nuclear. By “modern” we mean any mass-produced weapons that can kill a mass of people instantaneously.
On the eve of the Guernica bombing, German civilian airliners had been retrofitted with bomb bay doors. They were designed to carry civilians over mass distances. Instead, a modern state, animated by a modern ideology, Fascism, sanctioned a fleet of these planes that would carry mass produced bombs over mass distances, to target the masses – civilians in the Spanish town.
The shock of Picasso’s modern painting Guernicais the disruption of the civilians’ ontological security, the mental state derived from a sense of order and continuity, even the banality of everyday life, upended by death from the air. In human history, civilians might have seen an attacking army approach over the horizon, or ships coming into a bay, to lay siege or bombard urban centers. Picasso’s iconic painting depicts civilians looking up to the sky in shock, as some of the first humans to witnessed death from above.
Ironically, the Iranian-produced kamikaze drones are called “Shahed,” which means “witness” in Arabic and Persian. Indeed, Ukrainians have witnessed how the “Witness” has completely disrupted their lives, their ontological security.
In the lobby of the United Nations General Assembly, a replica of Picasso’s mural hangs above the podium where international figures field questions from the media, a form of R2R for the multilateral body, as the failure of the world community to act after Guernica was a factor that led to World War II. By bearing witness to Guernica and what it represents, UN diplomats would work to ensure it would not happen again.
Yet it did happen again. In February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, after delivering a presentation to the UN (holding a copy of the co-author’s plagiarized work on Iraq’s security services) refused to take questions in front of that mural, because such Guernicas would be repeated in Iraq more than a month later.
In 2016, a graphic designer from Portugal drew “Alepponica,” a revised political cartoon about the battle for Aleppo, with the bull from Picasso’s painting replaced by the head of Russian President Vladmir Putin, and a woman and her son underneath him fleeing Russian warplanes in the upper left.
A Tupolev TU-95 bomber is inserted into Picasso’s painting, reconfigured as political cartoon to accompany the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov’s March 2022 Guardian article, “Putin’s bombs and missiles rain down, but he will never destroy Ukraine’s culture.”
During World War II, London was hit with V1s, crude cruise missiles that resemble the Shaheds in shape and scope. In fact, both produce an irksome noise that sounds like a chainsaw when they fly in the sky before they strike.
Later, London was hit with V2s, the first ballistic missile, whereas Kyiv is being hit with hypersonic missiles, the Kinzhal, which means “dagger.” London had Spitfire aircraft to shoot down the V1s, while Kyiv has the Patriot to intercept the Kinzhal.
Malcom Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia writes, “It turns out that people were a lot tougher and more resilient than anyone expected. And it also turns out that maybe if you bomb another country day in and day out it doesn’t make the people you’re bombing give up and lose faith.”
During the Blitz, rooftop artillery units fired anti-aircraft ammunition during the nighttime raids, which had almost little chance of bringing down enemy planes, but it gave British citizens ontological security, as David Brooks writes, “citizens wanted to see the folks on their side doing something, so the guns blazed.” Fortunately, the Patriots provided to Ukraine have worked, even intercepting the Kinzhal, which was thought impossible to intercept, with one piece of the intercepted missile falling by the co-author’s apartment in the capital.
Prior to May, Russia sought to deprive Ukrainians of light and heat in winter, deliberately striking power plants. Due to the numerous power cuts, Ukrainians have learned new coping skills, such as how to use and start a generator, and chop firewood. Due to the cuts in electricity Ukrainians learned how to preserve fruit and fish that have a long shelf life. The most recent attacks since May have a different objective, to exhaust the Ukrainian armed forces surface-to-air missile systems around the cities.
While May is associated with spring and rain, almost every day that month an unusually intense storm of Russian drones and missiles rained upon Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. During the night of May 16, for example, Russia launched an exceptionally intense, incessant, indiscriminate air raid against Kyiv, including six Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, nine Kalibr cruise missiles, three Iskander ballistic missiles, along with six Shahed and three Orlan drones. The Kinzhals were launched from fighter jets, Kalibrs fired from the Black Sea, and the Iskanders were land-based. The missiles came from the north, south and east.
That barrage, like most of them, occurred as Ukrainians slept, hitting at 2 a.m. Just as the Blitz sent Londoners into the intestines of the city, the “Tube” network, Kyivites would also find refuge in subway stations, enduring strikes that could last up to three hours. When the co-author sits with her friends in the shelter during each massive attack, we agree that for every missile that rains down on us, we will rain money and donations down on Ukraine’s armed forces.
Modern warfare became so expensive that governments needed the masses to subsidize their militaries’ effort through war bonds, creating heroes like Captain America to raise Liberty Bonds during World War II. Today each Ukrainian is an Avenger by merely surviving and donating funds to the defense effort. Thus, the bombed from the air have agency, a means of resistance and defiance.
Finally, Ukraine has been fortunate that despite the attacks, foreign leaders have come to the capital in acts of R2R. While John F. Kennedy gave Berlin its “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment during the Cold War, Joe Biden gave Ukraine “I am a Kyivite” by secretly travelling overland to meet with Zelensky, as airspace has been closed to civilian traffic in the country.
What the inhabitants of Ukraine’s urban centers have endured is just part of the greater history of the “victims of war,” the soldiers or civilians with PTSD, the kidnapped and tortured, the raped and victims of gender-based violence, child soldiers, refugees and internally displaced, the survivors of landmines or IEDs who needs prosthetics, the victims of depleted uranium.
Gladwell concludes, “More than a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. And it didn’t work!” The Blitz did not break the morale of the British people, nor will it break that of the Ukrainians.
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