In the past week, Russia has dramatically narrowed the range of outcomes for its disastrous war in Ukraine. With the redeployment of troops away from Kyiv, the invading force has more or less made official what’s been obvious for weeks: It doesn’t have the capability to overrun the Ukrainian capital or overthrow its government. But the manner of the withdrawal and the emergence of sickening evidence of war crimes perpetrated against civilians have likely also taken some outcomes off the table. Ukraine is now far less likely to agree to major concessions to stop the bloodshed. And its allies in the West are far less likely to lose interest in supporting its resistance.
With its actions, Russia is making clear that it is settling in for a long and even more brutal war. And the evidence of atrocities will almost certainly change the course of that war — in different ways.
The nature of the crimes
Over the weekend, images emerged of hundreds of bodies of civilians left in the streets in the town of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, after the Russians withdrew. Some of the bodies had bullet wounds in the backs of their heads; others were found with their hands tied behind their backs. While Russian officials claimed the bodies had been placed there by returning Ukrainians, satellite imagery published by the New York Times showed that some had been left in the streets for weeks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said as many as 300 people were killed in the town. In a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Zelenskyy said that civilians had been killed “just for the pleasure” of Russian troops and compared the Russian government to the terrorists of the Islamic State.
Bucha is likely not alone. The nearby town of Borodyanka may have suffered an even worse massacre, according to the Ukrainian government. A newly released Human Rights Watch report documents, in harrowing detail, multiple cases of rape, summary execution and threats against civilians in Russian-controlled areas. And the full story has yet to emerge from the city of Mariupol, in the southeastern Donbas region, where the Russian military appears to be using the sort of siege and bombardment tactics it employed in previous conflicts against Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo, Syria.
“Urban warfare is horrific. The way Russian forces specifically have approached war in urban centers has been horrific. These are the types of crimes that we have seen elsewhere,” Kate Cronin-Furman, a political scientist at University College London, told Grid.
The killings have elicited comparisons to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, when 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. Adding more grim historical resonance, reports of Bucha emerged on the anniversary of the Katyn massacre, the killing of 20,000 Polish prisoners of war by the Soviets in 1940.
In an interview with CBS News over the weekend, Zelenskyy described Russia’s killing of civilians as “genocide.”
“We are the citizens of Ukraine, and we don’t want to be subdued to the policy of [the] Russian Federation,” he said. “This is the reason we are being destroyed and exterminated.”
The specific crime of genocide, defined by international law as the attempted destruction in whole or in part of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” is distinct from the killing of civilians that almost always occurs during war, and a charge of genocide carries enormous moral and political weight.
Cronin-Furman, whose research focuses on the prevention of mass atrocities, noted that when the term “genocide” was frequently invoked by supporters of Ukraine early in this conflict, it may have been an exaggeration, coming “from a really understandable place of wanting to galvanize international outcry.” But, she said in an interview on Monday, “given what we’ve been seeing in the last 24 hours … it’s reasonable to have a conversation about whether this meets the legal definition of genocide.”
For what it’s worth, while some European officials have used the term, the U.S. administration has not. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did make clear that the U.S. assessment is that “we do not believe this is a rogue act. … This was part of the plan.”
As with many of Russia’s “plans,” this one is likely to be counterproductive in the long run: A war justified by President Vladimir Putin under the narrative that Ukrainians and Russians are naturally one people, separated by an artificial border, could ultimately lead to generations of mutual resentment and hatred.
No more talking?
Just days ago, it was possible to imagine what a negotiated political settlement for a ceasefire would look like. Ukraine would agree to forgo NATO membership in exchange for still-to-be-defined “security guarantees” from Western countries to deter future Russian aggression. Much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine would remain under the de facto control of the Russian-backed “people’s republics,” their final status punted to future negotiations.
Zelenskyy already had a steep hill to climb to sell a deal like this to the Ukrainian public. After Bucha, it’s much harder to imagine the Ukrainians agreeing to leave any part of their territory under Russian control. Zelenskyy conceded as much during a televised address from Bucha on Monday, saying, “It’s very difficult to talk when you see what they’ve done here.”
The Kremlin’s interest in peace talks may be just as low. According to the U.S. government’s assessment, Russia is indeed refocusing its war aims, redeploying troops from northern Ukraine to focus on surrounding and expelling Ukrainian forces from the east and south. The war is entering a new phase, and it could be a long one, with more atrocities to come.
Meanwhile, the war rhetoric from Moscow is getting only more expansive. As an example, a commentary published on Sunday by the state news wire RIA Novosti called for not only the Ukrainian government but a significant portion of the Ukrainian population to be “denazified,” involving the “ideological repression of Nazi attitudes and strict censorship.” It’s not clear if the irony of using “denazification” to justify what looks increasingly like a campaign of ethnic cleansing and brainwashing was lost on the author.
The best available polling suggests that Putin’s popularity is growing as the war drags on. Not surprisingly, the Russian media claims the massacre at Bucha was a faked “provocation” by the Ukrainian authorities. The grisly revelations from around Kyiv seem unlikely to move the needle much in terms of Russian support for the war.
How will the world respond?
In past conflicts, the massacre of civilians has prompted even the most hardened skeptics of military intervention to change their tune. In 2011, when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi threatened “no mercy” against rebels in the city of Benghazi and compared them to rats, President Barack Obama authorized military action against Gaddafi’s military. The intervention was necessary, Obama said, to prevent what he called “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” His successor, Donald Trump, ordered missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks in 2017 and 2018.
Thus far, NATO countries including the United States have provided Ukraine with significant military aid but have stopped short of providing some of what the Ukrainians are asking for — a no-fly zone and fighter jets, to name two frequent requests — in order to avoid escalating the conflict into a catastrophic NATO-Russia war. In a Twitter conversation hosted by Grid on Monday, former CIA acting director and Grid Contributor John McLaughlin said, “I would say it’s probably time for NATO to take more risks,” including providing the Ukrainians with aircraft.
But Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Grid by email that there will still be limits to the kind of assistance the alliance will provide. “While the atrocities now evident in Bucha and other places are deeply shocking, I don’t believe this is the kind of event that NATO will respond to with direct military action,” he said. “It was evident from almost the first day that Russia was engaged in war crimes — including the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets — and what we’re seeing now is a graphic display of this barbarity. But it doesn’t amount to the kind of escalation that will change perspectives in Brussels or elsewhere on the direct use of force.”
Daalder did suggest that the revelations from Bucha would create more pressure on NATO states to provide Ukraine with “long-range capabilities” such as rockets, artillery, tanks and high-altitude defense systems. Ukraine may also need significant Western intelligence support as the war moves into its next phase in the south and east. In addition to providing Ukraine more drones, laser-guided rocket systems and military vehicles, the Biden administration is considering yet more sanctions on the Russian economy, potentially targeting the mining and transportation sectors, according to the Washington Post.
The revelations from Bucha have also sparked fresh discussions about economic sanctions. The EU has announced new sanctions targeting Russia’s coal and shipping sectors, and a number of European countries expelled Russian diplomats. Bucha has also added to calls for an all-out embargo on Russian energy exports, though European governments are still wary of this step, which could have serious economic repercussions.
Hope for justice?
President Joe Biden said on Monday that Putin should face a war-crimes tribunal, the most prominent of the many calls for Russian officials to face legal consequences for these massacres. War crimes and crimes against humanity are notoriously difficult to prosecute, though Cronin-Furman noted that there may be more “international political will” to respond in this case, as Russia is carrying them out on another country’s territory. When countries massacre civilians within their own borders, she said, “there’s often tremendous resistance in the international arena to international action, because it would involve incursions on a state sovereignty.” (Just ask the Uyghurs of China or Rohingya of Myanmar.)
But while there may be enormous international will to hold Russia legally accountable, the question still arises, who will do so? Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, told Grid that normally in a case like this, “the obvious thing to do would be for the Security Council to mandate an investigation. And if Russia were not a member of the Security Council, that would be the next step forward.” In his address to the U.N. on Tuesday, Zelenskyy called for the body to either expel Russia or dissolve itself.
There are other steps that can be taken. The U.N. General Assembly, the body of all U.N. members, where Russia does not have a veto, could mandate an investigation into war crimes. The U.N. Human Rights Council has already set up a commission of inquiry into violations of international law committed during the invasion. The events in Bucha have also accelerated a campaign, spearheaded by the U.S., to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council.
The International Criminal Court is also investigating abuses committed in Ukraine. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the court, but the Ukrainian government has declared in the past that it accepts the court’s jurisdiction for crimes committed on its territory. Some international legal scholars are also calling for the creation of a special tribunal — along the lines of those set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — in order to investigate Putin for the “crime of aggression” against Ukraine. Gowan suggests another tactic Ukraine could employ would be to invite investigators from a third country to look into the atrocities. An international team carried out this sort of investigation into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in 2014, finding that a Russian military missile had downed the plane.
None of these tactics is likely to result in Putin or any other Russian official seeing the inside of a courtroom any time soon. Russia will reject the legitimacy of any legal proceeding, and Putin would almost certainly be safe — as long, that is, as he stays in power.
Crisis Group’s Gowan said that qualification is actually a reason for caution: “While we obviously see the moral case for threatening Putin with war crimes trials, that does have to be weighed against the risk that he become even more recalcitrant, and even less likely to talk peace, if he fears he’s going to end up with a one-way ticket to the Hague.”
There’s even a possibility that the massacres could make members of Putin’s circle more loyal: The more blood they have on their hands, the less likely it is they’ll have a smooth landing if the regime falls.
For now, these questions are mostly academic. Putin shows little sign he’s interested in winding down the war, with or without the threat of legal action. And if there were any way to give the Ukrainians even more of an impetus to fight back, the Russians may have just done it.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.