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Russia did not flatten all of the central Kiev ministries, presidential, and parliament buildings with artillery. Yet it seems their artillery range was enough to allow that.

And it is not just Russia. As far I know, German government buildings were not specifically targeted for flattening in WWII (though there was certainly damage, I guess it was not on the level of a top target). Likewise, the Japanese Imperial palace or central government buildings were not flattened any more than the rest of Tokyo, which the US devastated.

Am I wrong? Are ministries, presidential, and parliament buildings particularly chosen as targets for flattening in such wars? Or is there a political reason not to? Or is it against laws of war which combatants actually obey? (Yet flattening the presidential buildings or war ministries would seem to be well within the laws of war.)

Again, I am not referring to whether these buildings are targeted, but to whether they are treated as high-priority target to the point where, given the firepower in such wars, they would be flattened.

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    Why should they be targeted? Would destroying them diminish the military capabilities of the enemy much? Surely the other side doesn't really use these building but operate from some bunkers somewhere. Or do you think there would be a large symbolic character by destroying them?
    – Trilarion
    May 27 at 12:25
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    Same question could be asked about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab terrorists go mostly after specifically easy targets: the unarmed civilians. The Israelis target the terrorists, with civilians as the collateral damage - but rarely the government buildings. Why not wipe out the terrorist Hamas leadership? Beats me… May 27 at 12:34
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    During WWII, strategic aerial bombardment was good if it came within a mile of a target.
    – o.m.
    May 27 at 15:43
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    It seems that it being against laws of war would not be considered a significant obstacle May 28 at 21:33
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    During bombing of Yugoslavia NATO did obliterate MoD in Belgrade (as well as Chinese embassy), so sometimes those are priority targets
    – alamar
    May 31 at 7:33

4 Answers 4

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Even if it is not a war crime to do so, it is not a sensible military objective in most cases.

Usually, the goal of a military attack on a country is not to obliterate the country and salt the earth, but to secure a more favorable governing regime, or control of some part of the country, by replacing the top leadership of that country.

Ideally, in a case like Russia's initial goals in its invasion of the Ukraine, the goal is to install a friendly puppet regime in the militarily conquered country. But, in that scenario, the puppet regime would utilize, as much as feasible, the existing civil service of the existing regime to govern the country upon taking control.

If Russia, for example, destroyed the offices of the tax collection ministry or sub-ministry, the new regime taking power after its military success would have to incur lots of time and money rebuilding the country's tax collection system from scratch to put its own Russian friendly regime in place.

A military would only want to obliterate all government buildings if its goal were to render that country useless as an opponent, so that it could no longer attack it, without having any desire to actual rule or occupy or control the country attacked.

Also, wiping out all of the top leadership of a country isn't necessarily desirable. The cleanest way to win a war it to have the legitimate leaders of a country surrender and agree to your demands, as, for example, Japan did in World War II in 1945, and as the Confederacy did in the U.S. Civil War in 1865.

If the legitimate top leadership of a country is in place and still secure in its rule of its people, a single agreement from that leadership can achieve your military objectives swiftly with little further cost in blood or treasure, recognizing your credible threat to use further military force without actually requiring you to actually use that further military force to achieve your objectives.

But, if you have decapitated the ruling class of a country or at least undermined its authority beyond repair, then to achieve your objective and end the war you started on favorable terms, you need to enter into deals with every subcomponent of the country that has secure legitimate leadership possibly down to mayors and other local government officials, or worse yet, have to install a new system of government directly upon the people from scratch rebuilding their entire nation from the ground up in the face of a many headed hydra of opposition figures who must be subdued one by one.

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  • Russia might want to keep the health or tax departments, but would love to eliminate the president or the ministry of defense. It was reported, I don't know with what accuracy, that they tried to assassinate Zelenskyy. As far as I know, Russia would want there to be a rump state headquartered in Lviv and a number of puppet states headquartered in various cities, so wiping out the president or the ministry of defense would not bother them.
    – Joshua Fox
    May 28 at 18:05
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    In WWI, the US and allies definitely wanted to completely replace the government, and indeed the US had some plans for Germany to keep it as a backwards agricultural state. I don't think anyone wanted to carefully keep around the top leadership.
    – Joshua Fox
    May 28 at 18:05
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    @nick012000: Well, for 1.) - the government buildings are the ones the construction of new buildings in the area and ensuring they're up to building code. Unless they want to manage all of that from Moscow, they're going to want to have local government bureaucracy on site. Similar to keeping sewage plants working and power plants (Even if they take the plants over for strategic reuse of them.). May 30 at 9:32
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    @AlexanderThe1st Given the state of Mariupol after the siege ended, I'm not so sure that the Russian command staff care all that much about keeping the lights on and water running in the areas they're fighting over.
    – nick012000
    May 30 at 13:12
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    The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is another textbook example of why destroying all state institutions is a disaster that led to anarchy.
    – Stuart F
    May 31 at 6:47
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The laws of war allow attacks which hit infrastructure as long as there is a military purpose and it is proportionate to the likely civilian damage. It is legal to attack bridges, factories, and also administrative headquarters.

The first so-called 'smart bombs' were introduced at the end of WWII, but those were early prototypes. It took until the 1960s or 1970s before they came into common usage. During WWII, the accuracy of strategic bombing was measured in kilometers, not meters. So they might have aimed for an office block, but they would have been lucky to hit the right city center.

By the time of the 1990 gulf war, it was possible to go after 'leadership targets.' But doing so might be interpreted as a sign that one side was aiming for regime change in the opponent. This might be difficult to agree between allies in a coalition, and it would reduce the chances for a negotiated settlement short of total victory.

So it isn't illegal to target the bunker of the enemy leader. It may be unwise.

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  • Thank you. In the given examples, the attacker definitely wanted regime change, and were not too bothered in this context by the laws of war; and in any case, that would not matter if they were attacking the leadership or the war ministry. As to the accuracy: I am pretty sure that if Russia had wanted to flatten the Ukrainian president's building or the ministry of defense, they could have; and likewise the US in WWII (even if a lot of extra bombs would be needed).
    – Joshua Fox
    May 28 at 18:02
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    I disagree with the 'not too bothered' generalizations, and Allied bombs did hit the Reichskanzlei. There was a reason why Hitler suicided in his bunker and not in his main office.
    – o.m.
    May 29 at 4:20
  • Thank you. So do I understand correctly that as far as we know, the Reichskanzlei was a particular target?
    – Joshua Fox
    May 29 at 6:11
  • @JoshuaFox, central Berlin was a target. If they did that because it contained the Reichskanzlei or because it contained railway stations or because it contained factories was a bit of an academic question -- planners knew that all three were in the error radius. Some strategists also wanted to hit it because it contained workers for that factories, that would be different because intent matters for discrimination of civilian targets.
    – o.m.
    May 29 at 7:09
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    @JoshuaFox, it comes back to the very limited number of cases where states with the means to go after enemy leadership (1,000 bomber raids or PGM) have fought a war to the finish. Look at statements/analysis for the 2003 Gulf War and hypothetical DPRK scenarios. On the other hand, President Putin seems to have planned to hold a victory parade in Kyiv, not to level it to the ground. The Ukrainian resistance took him by surprise, and since then Zelensky has been moving a lot. He seems afraid that the Russians might attack if they knew where he is.
    – o.m.
    May 29 at 13:05
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It really depends on the broader war strategy. The US bombed several of Saddam's palaces during the two Gulf wars, trying to get him personally. And also between the wars proper, e.g. during "Desert Fox" in 1998. The US was not really interested in reaching an accomodation with Saddam, but rather "regime change" was always on the agenda, albeit not always at the forefront (1st war). During the latter Gulf war, the US also bombed much more inconspicuous houses in crowded neighborhoods, where they suspected Saddam was hiding (and they weren't actually far off).

Having said this, I suspect it's much easier to justify politically killing a dictator reviled in many countries (for starting several wars with their neighbors, gassing the domestic opposition etc.)

But, you're gonna say, doesn't the Kremlin [also] want "regime change" in Kyiv? I'd say, yes, but Zelensky dying in an airstrike was probably not their preferred way of achieving that, if we were to infer from the statement Putin put out on February 25, which was calling for the Ukraine's military to depose the "neo-Nazi drug addicts" from Kyiv. Probably in the ideal scenario then envisaged by the Kremlin, that would have been followed by the Ukrainian armed forces laying down their arms or at least not fighting, which is more or less what had happened in Crimea in 2014. Putin was at least explicit that [he thought] it would be easier to come to an agreement with whomever deposed Zelensky.

On the other hand, Russia did strike some local/regional government buildings in various cities, ranging from Kharkiv to Mykolaiv. Why they chose those targets is an interesting question, which alas probably cannot be answered definitively due to the lack of inquisitiveness of the Russian press that's invited to the Kremlin and Russian MoD briefings. I can speculate those targets are intended as a blow to the local symbols of power of Kyiv in regions that Russia perhaps intends to annex. Or that they might even be payback for the Ukrainian airstrike on Luhansk in 2014, etc.

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In the average conflict attacking non-military government buildings would be a war crime as those are civilian targets. They also have a fairly low strategic value as bombing parliament maybe stops some input for overall strategy to the generals. It's more important from a military perspective to target power, water, telecommunications, roads, rail lines, military bases. After the war anyone who targeted such buildings explicitly would face an uphill battle in proving they weren't war criminals, especially if they are the losing party.

In a total war scenario like WWII, targeting these buildings would make more sense, but they still aren't great targets because there aren't many people in them for the size of these buildings. In total war body count is one of the bigger factors in targets. Targeting government leadership would be great, but the important leaders generally have long since abandoned large public buildings for fortified bunkers.

If the goal is to capture territory sparing the government buildings also makes sense, because they can then be used by the new government. There's also something to be said for avoiding destruction of anything that is important to the national psyche of an enemy, as it can just as easily galvanize them against you as break their spirit.

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    In most conflict decapitating the top level government officials would be a cheap (from a human casualty prospective - and is there any other one?) way to stop the war faster. Plugging Hitler, Putin, Arafat, or the Hamas leadership who do not even have Israel in the map (!) would be terrifying, instructive & effective. Why kill millions of conscripts who only yesterday were drafted into the military, often against their will? Just rip out the real military criminals, the masterminds of terror! I would say, two rockets into Lubyanka FSB headquarters, and voila! The end will be much closer! May 27 at 13:03
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    @TimurShtatland: if you kill the people at the top, who are you supposed to negotiate with? Plus, you've just made a martyr of their leaders, so that may make things worse, not better. May 27 at 13:19
  • @SteveMelnikoff: After you kill the top warmongers, the next leaders will see that you mean business. They will be usually, but not always, more willing to negotiate. They want to live! And I have not seen much of "Hitler the martyr" in the the present day Germany. The occasional terror-promoting Muslim cleric who is target-assassinated by the Israelis is a lot more useful to Israel dead than alive & spewing hatred. Martyrdom of a few top war criminal or terrorism promoters is not such a big deal when many civilian lives are at stake. May 27 at 14:58
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    @TimurShtatland Certainly leadership decapitation is precisely what Western countries have often pursued when dealing with terrorists/insurrections in Afghanistan, Iraq. So has Israel against Hamas. Whether that works well is another question - there's arguments for both sides - but, yes, the principle in itself has its followers. May 27 at 17:11

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