In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was the most powerful Nazi in Czechoslovakia. Appointed to mercilessly subjugate the occupied territory by the Fuhrer himself, he set off to meet Adolf Hitler in Berlin on 27 May in an open top car, confident his status alone would protect him. It didn’t, but the British-trained Czech partisans who gunned him down on a country road outside Prague had little doubt that revenge would come swiftly.

A week after Heydrich died from his wounds in hospital, Nazi forces surrounded the village of Lidice in the north-west of the country. The men, all 173 of them, were marched to a barn on the edge of the village and executed by a firing squad. The remaining residents, 203 women and 105 children, were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Four pregnant women were made to undergo abortions before their deportation. The village was razed, burnt and blown up, any trace it had ever existed wiped out.

If the plan was to terrorise the Czechs into submission and make the price of resistance to Nazi rule too great to bear, it failed. Groups of partisans still hid out in the woods and in the mountains, fighting running battles with the occupying Germans, blowing up railways and sabotaging key roads. Ultimately, with Allied armies advancing from the East and the West, more than 30,000 Czechs took up arms to free their country, before the Soviet Red Army arrived.

On Monday, rockets began raining down on towns and cities across Ukraine, smashing into apartment buildings, incinerating motorists in their cars and targeting civilian infrastructure. Swathes of the country were left without electricity, water and heating as a result of the attacks on utilities installations, and at least 14 people were killed.

While Ukrainian air defence chiefs say the strikes had been planned well in advance, the Kremlin’s state media has celebrated them as revenge for the blast that damaged the Moscow-built bridge linking annexed Crimea to the Russian mainland just days before. Coincidence or not, the barrage is being used to send a message.

“It seems they want to speed things up and try and encourage Ukrainians to turn on the Kyiv government,” one young Russian working as a junior official in the government reflected, even as the bombs crashed down on residential areas.

However, to citizens in a video as the dust settled, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, pledged that the onslaught would not weaken the country’s will to defend itself. “Ukraine cannot be intimidated. It can only be more united,” he insisted. Since then, electricity has been restored to more than 3,500 settlements, while a crater left by a Russian missile in a road in Dnipro was filled in, tarmacked and painted over within 24 hours. In practice, the attack is nothing new and people living on the receiving end of nearly nine months of war have learned to cope with the consequences as best they can.

Having already sacrificed so much for the defence of the country, few Ukrainians are likely to be convinced to stop resisting because of the prospect of yet more terror. With the evidence torture chambers have been set up in occupied towns, and footage of the body of an executed civilian rolling down a bankside into a mass grave near Kupyansk, the prospect of surrender looks far more brutal and unthinkable than continuing to hold out. 

Moreover, having repeatedly scored a string of victories against Putin’s forces in the east of the country, Kyiv knows it is winning on the front lines and is on track to liberate its territory. Against that backdrop, when the electricity cuts out, Ukrainians are more likely to reach for the candles than the white flag.

And yet, despite its frequent failure, the deliberate targeting of civilians is very much part of Putin’s playbook. Just a week ago, Putin appointed the notorious General Sergey Surovikin as the overall commander of his forces in Ukraine. The 55-year-old cut his teeth in the Second Chechen war, where Moscow levelled entire towns and cities in an effort to quell a regional separatist movement, and took charge in Syria, where residential areas were repeatedly targeted to quash support for militias opposed to the regime of dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

The same tactics are unlikely to work this time, with the two sides far more evenly matched – and Ukraine’s troops better trained, better armed and better motivated than the invaders. Worse still for Putin, the approach could easily backfire. The rockets, cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed drones used in the attack cost an estimated $400-700 million, and achieved little if any strategic value. With reserves of munitions and hardware reportedly running low, changing tack now is a costly gamble that could easily diminish them still further, taking resources away from the fight.

Losing on the battlefield, Putin is increasingly desperate to score anything that can be sold as a win back home. Lashing out at ordinary people may help hasten the end of the war – but likely not in the way he wants.

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