The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine took a turn for the worse in early April as numerous incidents of apparent war crimes have been revealed.
While some have compared these to the killing of civilians that took place in other conflicts, such as the US invasion of Iraq, the reality being revealed in areas of Ukraine previously occupied by Russia, is systematic killings of civilians. This doesn’t appear accidental, but rather premeditated.
However, there is still much we don’t know. What we do know is there have been images of streets strewn with bodies. There is even video from a drone of a man raising his hands and being fired on. The worst examples of killings are the bodies in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv.
Yet, Russia claims that the videos are faked, even as Russia and its backers have put out propaganda excusing the atrocities or bashing Ukrainians. These are classic tactics: Deny, obfuscate and then bash others. The tactic was honed during the Syrian civil war where narratives would claim that Syrian rebels were faking poison gas attacks or that the West was someone inventing them as false flags, while pro-regime media would then claim that anyway the victims were somehow in areas occupied by terrorists.
The claims of massacres and killings of civilians have been verified by major media, such as the BBC, using a variety of methods. Satellite photos have shown the bodies and claim to show a mass grave. Ukrainian officials warn that worse atrocities will be discovered.
And even if one isn’t convinced that these killings are genocide, as some pro-Ukrainian voices say, the obvious fact is that the invasion has unleashed horrors. Millions have fled their homes. Cities and towns have been laid waste.
This isn’t Russian precision warfare trying to target military targets. This is just an old-style conflict in which Moscow believes it has the impunity to shell cities and ruin them, regardless of who is in the way.
YET THE atrocities in Ukraine may go unpunished. This is because Russia is on the UN Human Rights Council and countries like it have worked for years to make sure that they are above the concept of international law.
It is part of a larger push by many authoritarian regimes to create a multi-polar world, free from United States and Western hegemony. In their narrative they are merely balancing things out.
The US was dominant in the 1990s after the Cold War and was not a great steward. The US bombed countries like Iraq, eventually invading Iraq in 2003; and the US intervened in a number of places, from Kosovo to Somalia.
US wars against terrorism were also not free of abuses. From the renditions of extremists allegedly linked to Al Qaeda after 9/11 to the use of drones, the US carried out many controversial policies. Some of these policies resulted in harm to the innocent. In general, the US was not held accountable.
In Russia’s view, this creates an opening and a free rein to a Hobbesian world order. Russia has paid lip service to international law, claiming for instance that its intervention in Syria is legal because it was invited, but it has now largely discarded this mask of legality.
Russia invaded Ukraine in an unprovoked invasion. It gave very few reasons for its invasion; it didn’t even bother to cook up some casus belli that gave it a right to invade. There was no incident or something that led to this. Russia just built up forces, openly for all to see, and invaded.
In the invasion it felt total impunity. This was because Russia had the same impunity in the Syrian war. While lots of Western media might shout about Russia bombing hospitals in areas controlled by the Syrian rebels, Moscow knew that no one would do anything.
Moscow also watched as China has been rising on the world stage, and how China was able to work closely with the World Health Organization at the beginning of the pandemic to deflect criticism. It felt secure in the fact that it had inroads in the West via media, like RT, and also friends who saw Russia as some kind of anti-migrant Christian country with values that were against the globalist elites and woke policies. This is all a bit ridiculous considering Russian oligarchs are just as much elites as their Western counterparts and that Ukraine is just as normal a nationalist Western cause as backing Russia against the woke.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have miscalculated not just the Western reaction but also Ukraine’s resistance. But, this may not matter because Russia’s real goal may be to simply force Ukraine into a war of attrition fought on Ukraine’s soil. Such wars can wear down a country, as France was said to have been bled white by World War I.
Ukraine has become more nationalist and willing to resist since the 2014 protests when Ukrainians forced their then-pro-Russian president to leave office. But, Russia seems to no longer care about the veneer of saving Ukraine from the coup of 2014 and liberating it. Russia is settling in for a war of ruination to make Ukraine a neutral country between it and the West. This is what Russia has called its Near Abroad in the past – meaning it wants to break Ukraine down.
Ukraine is resisting and it seems every day that goes by it gets stronger on the battlefield. But, millions have fled, and some towns and cities will require millions or billions of dollars to recover. How will they pick up the pieces after this? Will Ukrainians ever be able to sleep calmly again, knowing that Moscow feels total impunity to rain rockets down on their cities?
THIS IS an important question because the Middle East suffers from similar impunity when it comes to Hamas rockets and the Iran regime.
Iran has attacked Iraq with rockets, used drones and rockets to target Israel via proxies and directly. It has done the same against the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries. No one will stop Iran’s attacks. Iran believes it can attack whoever it wants, whenever it wants.
Hamas feels the same way. Hamas leaders haven’t been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. So Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups feel they can do whatever they want. This means that the impunity of human rights abuses in Ukraine and the use of weapons to target civilian areas has a very real bearing on the Middle East.
The question of whether the West can hold Russia accountable also has ramifications. If Russia is expelled from the UN Human Rights Council, this might portend that other human rights abusers which often dominate the council – like Venezuela, Iran and North Korea – could be removed.
But, if Russia avoids any real censure for what happened near Kyiv, it will be more open season in the Hobbesian new world order. ■