The Russian strategy to starve Ukrainians into submission in major cities has created more refugees and raised questions about the proper Western response to Russian human rights abuses in Ukraine. Refugees fleeing Mariupol and elsewhere in Ukraine fear starvation, and analysts say this is part of a deliberate strategy. A high-ranking U.S. official has warned the Russian Army may begin placing Ukrainians in concentration and prisoner camps.
Starvation as a Strategy: Reports indicate the Russian Army is using starvation as part of a strategy to coerce cities to surrender. “Those fleeing [Mariupol] spoke of weeks spent trapped in their basements with little to eat and no electricity or water,” reported the Washington Post.
“In the besieged city of Mariupol, scene of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s three-week war on Ukraine, people are now so hungry they are killing stray dogs for food,” according to the Financial Times. “Dmytro said he visited the central market last Sunday after it had been flattened by a Russian artillery attack. ‘Everything was burning, there were corpses everywhere, and I was just walking through, picking up a cabbage here, a carrot there, knowing it meant my family would live another day or two,’ he said . . . Witnesses depicted post-apocalyptic scenes of stray dogs eating the remains of bombing victims who lay unburied on the street . . . Russia’s medieval-style siege of Mariupol . . . left its residents facing an acute shortage of both food and water.”
Military and security experts are blunt about the Russian strategy: “Ukraine refugee flow continues. . . Citizens continue to be plagued with lack of water, food, heat, electricity,” said retired U.S. Army General Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army. “Ukraine continues to attrit the Russian army; Russian army continues to attempt to attrit Ukraine citizens with illegal attacks.”
“Access to food, water and medicine is becoming the top issue for besieged cities in Ukraine,” according to Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator. “One can fight for a long time even from rubble but you can’t do that without food and water. Russians are clearly employing a starvation strategy.” (Emphasis added.)
On March 21, 2022, confirming the strategy, Russia demanded Mariupol surrender; Ukraine refused.
Decades ago, another government in Moscow employed starvation against Ukrainians. Anne Applebaum and other scholars have documented that nearly 4 million Ukrainians died in a famine caused by the Soviet government between 1931 and 1934. It is called the Holodomor. In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Applebaum reprints a letter to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin from Ukrainian collective farm workers: “We . . . have not had a slice of bread in our farm since January 1  . . . How can we build a socialist peoples’ economy when we are condemned to starving to death?”
Concentration and Prisoner Camps: The Russian Army employing a “starvation strategy” and deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure are only two of the issues creating refugees and raising questions about the appropriate Western response. On March 20, 2022, a high-ranking member of the Biden administration, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told CNN it is “unconscionable for Russia to force Ukrainian citizens into Russia and put them in what will basically be concentration and prisoner camps.”
The concern about Russia placing Ukrainians into “concentration and prison camps” came in response to reports from the Mariupol city council that “Russian soldiers have forced more than a thousand city residents to be relocated to Russia,” according to USA Today. “Ukrainian passports were taken from people who were given a piece of paper that ‘has no legal weight and is not recognized throughout the civilized world.’” The Russian news service TASS, in effect, confirmed this by reporting that 62,000 residents of Mariupol were “evacuated” to Russia.
The Russian strategy has not surprised those who observed Russia’s armed forces in Chechnya and Syria. “Moscow hit civilian targets [in Syria], such as hospitals, bakeries and gas stations where people lined up for gas and this speaks volumes to Moscow’s fundamentally different approach to counterinsurgency to that taken by the West,” writes Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence. “After Russia entered the Syrian theater, attacks on health-care facilities only increased . . . BMG Global Health journal found that the Syrian and Russian regimes ‘weaponized healthcare’ by deliberately targeting ambulances.”
U.S. Response to Refugees: Refugee experts have been disappointed in the U.S. response to the refugee crisis created by Russia’s invasion, particularly when compared to the welcome Ukrainians have received in Poland and other countries. The United Nations estimates “10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes,” reports Axios, and “nearly 3.4 million” have left the country and become refugees. The Washington Post asked in a March 2, 2022, editorial: “Why isn’t Biden taking in refugees from Ukraine?” European governments expect Ukrainian refugee flows to continue if the Russian military tactics persist.
Not Wanting the World to See: The Russian military appears to fear a Western response if the full extent of their actions becomes known to the world. Residents who successfully fled Mariupol reported Russian soldiers at checkpoints demanding they delete photographs of the devastation caused by Russian missiles and artillery. Russia has also targeted journalists.
Associated Press reporter Mstyslav Chernov fled Mariupol after Ukrainian soldiers told Chernov and a colleague that Russian troops had the men on a list. “We had been documenting the siege of the Ukrainian city by Russian troops for more than two weeks and were the only international journalists left in the city,” he wrote.
“If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie,” the Ukrainian officer told him. “All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain.”
“The officer, who had once begged us to show the world his dying city, now pleaded with us to go,” wrote Chernov. “Impunity is the [Russian military] goal. With no information coming out of a city, no pictures of demolished buildings and dying children, the Russian forces could do whatever they wanted.”
There is little doubt that when Joe Biden pulled all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in 2021, he expected it to be a politically popular decision. Instead, many Americans became shocked at the stream of refugees and other impacts the decision created. Based on the change in ratings identified in surveys, it likely remains the most significant reason the president has been judged a “weak leader” in polls.
Biden also must have believed it would be popular to declare upfront, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that the U.S. military would not become involved in Ukraine. But foreign policy experts believe that signaled to Russian leader Vladimir Putin that Russia had a green light to take over the country and even commit atrocities without a response from the United States except for economic sanctions and weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Has the Biden administration correctly read U.S. and world opinion that a Russian strategy of starving cities with hundreds of thousands of residents and deporting Ukrainians to Russia or placing them in “camps” will not increase calls for more direct intervention in Ukraine particularly in the face of millions of refugees? Is President Biden willing to sit back and let the Russian Army employ a deliberate strategy of killing thousands of Ukrainian civilians? Tens of thousands? If not, his signaling has more likely created the type of miscalculation on Russia’s part he was trying to prevent.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Anna Borshchevskaya said in an interview that Biden made a mistake by explicitly stating the United States would not intervene militarily. “You want to keep your adversary guessing,” she said. “Why make it so explicit?” She believes NATO should position Patriot batteries and long-range, precision weapons along Ukraine’s NATO frontier as a signal and a deterrent to Russia.
Borshchevskaya agrees the Biden administration may be unprepared for U.S. and world opinion in the face of tens of thousands or more Ukrainians dead of starvation or imprisoned in Russian concentration or labor camps. She is worried the Biden administration’s pledge not to intervene has forestalled options while Russia continues its actions against Ukrainian civilians. She asks, “What will it take for the United States to do more?”