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What we owe the fallen of Bucha

What we owe the fallen of Bucha

The atrocities inflicted in this Ukrainian city should force the West to answer difficult questions about the war – and what, exactly, we are willing to sacrifice

The name of Bucha must now be added to a particular list of infamy: it should appear alongside My Lai, Tiananmen, Kigali, Srebrenica, the Chechen village of Katyr-Yurt, Ghouta, and all the other most notorious scenes of atrocity since 1945. 

In a moment of global horror, this city 37 km northwest of Kyiv has suddenly become synonymous with the unspeakable war crimes that – it is increasingly clear – have been inflicted upon the Ukrainian people for 40 days by Vladimir Putin’s forces.

With each passing hour, fresh reports are posted of new mass graves; of corpses rotting in the street, hands tied behind their backs; of women repeatedly raped, tattooed with swastikas and executed; of underground torture chambers; of stray animals feeding on human carrion. 

Over the weekend, Bucha’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said that more than 300 residents had been murdered – though that estimate of the death toll already seems likely to prove conservative. In an interview with Times Radio yesterday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that there was no possible military justification for the massacre beyond the sadistic urge to send shock waves of terror through the rest of Ukraine: “These were not guerrillas, they were not people opposing them. Russia is worse than Isis, full stop.”

This was no aberration, either. The accounts of war crimes that have already amassed in the first seven weeks of the invasion show (yet again) that atrocity is Putin’s calling card. The arbitrary shooting of civilians, the systematic rape and execution of women, the use of Ukrainian children by Russian forces as a “human shield”: all this is part of the Russian leader’s playbook, the depraved strategy by which he punishes, sows fear and deters resistance.

This conflict forces us to go back to first principles. What is at stake and what are we prepared – really prepared – to do about it? In her great essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag noted the complex responses that atrocities provoke and warned against the assumption that horror, however profound, will necessarily yield a meaningful response.

“Compassion,” she wrote, “is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” And: “To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames.” Above all, as Sontag wrote, public outrage often conceals a shabbier, unspoken reaction: “This is not happening to me, I’m not ill, I’m not dying. I’m not trapped in a war…Wherever people feel safe…they will be indifferent.”

This is exactly right. For the moment, everybody with half a sense of decency who sees the news or reads the press will be consumed by anger, revulsion, perhaps a sense of frustration that Putin is not being challenged by the West more directly. But how involved do they themselves feel in the horrors of Ukraine? How personally connected to the carnage being excavated in Bucha and elsewhere? To apply Sontag’s test: how safe do they feel? 

It is almost a ritual of contrition for modern heads of government to look back upon their time in office and regret that they did not do more to prevent atrocities. In his autobiography, Tony Blair is scathing about his response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: “We knew. We failed to act. We were responsible.” In his own memoirs, Bill Clinton writes: “The failure to try to stop Rwanda’s tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency.”

From this regret – and the horrors of the Balkan and Somalian conflicts – emerged the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), enshrined by the United Nations in 2005. According to the UN’s general secretary, Kofi Annan, the world had taken “collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.

But had it? Russia and China routinely thwart efforts to invoke R2P. It has made no difference to conflicts in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. It is the very definition of a dead letter, the virtue-signalling of the international rules-based order at its worst.

The challenge for Volodymyr Zelensky and his colleagues is to transform moments of public horror into something greater and more sustainable than such international agreements can ever achieve. This is why the Ukrainian president delivered a video message at last night’s Grammys, spelling out to the assembled pop stars that “our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them”. 

In the statement screened at the awards ceremony at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he tried, by force of rhetoric and dramatic intervention, to recruit the world of entertainment to his battle against Putin, and – implicitly connecting the red of the blood shed in his homeland to the pop stars’ red carpet – brought a whole new meaning to the words fear and loathing in Las Vegas. No previous war leader would have dreamt of attempting such a stunt, or risked the potentially demeaning spectacle of asking for help from such a crowd. But Zelensky – who was himself an entertainer before he was a politician – understands that the soft power of the audience at the  Grammys is at least as great as the influence he seeks in the legislatures and assemblies that he has addressed so relentlessly. All that matters to the Ukrainian president is keeping his campaign for national survival at the forefront of global public opinion, by any means necessary. In this respect, he is touched by genius.

What he cannot dictate is the operations of hard power and the readiness of those who control its levers to use them with sufficient force. Naturally, there was a chorus of outrage around the world in response to the reports from Bucha. 

“We can’t become numb to this,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on CNN’s State of the Union yesterday. “We can’t normalise this. This is the reality of what’s going on every single day as long as Russia’s brutality against Ukraine continues.”

Melinda Simmons, Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine, tweeted: “Rape is a weapon of war. Though we don’t yet know the full extent of its use in #Ukraine it’s already clear it was part of [Russia’s] arsenal. Women raped in front of their kids, girls in front of their families, as a deliberate act of subjugation. Rape is a war crime.”

Most significantly, in the immediate geopolitical context, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister, said that “[t]hose responsible for these war crimes must be made accountable. We will tighten the sanctions against Russia and will assist Ukraine even more in defending itself.”

But how tight does “tighten” mean, and how much more is “more”? To be fair, Germany has already responded extraordinarily to this crisis, pledging to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence, halting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia and agreeing to send weapons to Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is not enough. As Boris Johnson will tell German Chancellor Olaf Scholz when he welcomes him to Number 10 on Friday, his country – and the rest of the European Union – has to break its dependence on Russian fossil fuels if the sanctions regime is to stand a chance of breaking Putin’s resolve. Since the invasion was launched on 24 February, the EU has spent €18 billion on Russian oil and gas. On this matter, the choice is quite clear: there is no point in condemning Putin’s savagery as long as the West is bank-rolling his regime.

Indeed, a moment of decision is approaching fast as the extent of the Russian president’s military miscalculations becomes clear. As one senior UK government source put it to me: “Remember, we’re only seeing the horrors of Bucha because Putin’s forces are pulling out of Kyiv and focusing on the East.” Well, yes. But that is scant consolation to the Ukrainians.

A narrative is gaining ground in western capitals – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – that goes something like this: Putin is losing, and the imperative now is to provide him with a dignified “off-ramp”, something that he can frame to the Russian people on 9 May, Victory Day, as his own “Mission Accomplished”. Something that will enable him to claim that he has “denazified” Ukraine, kept Nato out, and strengthened the rights of ethnic Russians in the Donbas.

Neat as this sounds, it is a plan full of holes. Zelensky has already made it clear that he will not accept anything that breaches the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that he will insist on security guarantees that have teeth – in contrast to the mere security “assurances” offered by the US and UK in the deplorably treacherous 1994 Budapest Memorandum (in return for which Ukraine yielded its nuclear weapons). 

Will Putin really accept such guarantees? And, for all the warm words offered by the Kremlin, would he really go along with Zelensky’s demand that any peace deal be put to the Ukrainians in a referendum?

It is self-evidently welcome that the two sides are talking at all – as long as these negotiations are not assumed to be the prelude to an imminent and sustainable peace. Never forget that Putin is a world-class practitioner of maskirovka: the military art of masquerade, deception and deceit. 

Zelensky, for his part, has seen Ukraine sold out time and again. His openness to talks should not under any circumstances be confused with a yearning to throw in the towel. He knows that his homeland’s very survival is at stake and that a hasty deal will be worse than nothing. In this respect, he has an ally in the British PM who, I am told, is concerned by the conviction of many in Berlin and Paris that we are already in the endgame. 

In this respect, Zelensky and Johnson are absolutely right to be sceptical.

It has become almost a cliché to say that we are entering a new Cold War and that is plainly so. But there is a hot war to be won and lost first, and it is over this matter that the apparent unity of Nato is creaking and groaning – not only between member nations, but within them. 

In her recent biography of Angela Merkel, the American writer Kati Marton draws a useful distinction between those politicians formed by the Cold War and those still more influenced by the two world wars (or other such conflicts). Merkel, naturally, fell into the former category, dedicating herself to the painstaking management of Putin by the traditional Cold War strategies of containment and patience.

For this, the world owes the former German chancellor a debt: during his 2014 invasion of Ukraine, she spoke to the Russian president no fewer than 38 times. In Minsk, hunched over a table in the ceremonial hall of the Palace of Independence, she negotiated with him without faltering, sometimes for 15 hours at a stretch. The peace that followed was Merkel’s peace, and it was no small achievement. 

But, eight years on, its limits are now painfully clear. As Vladislav Surkov, at the time one of Putin’s closest lieutenants, warned her: “It’s up to the Russian people to decide if Russia becomes a loner or an alpha male surging over other nations.” Whatever the Russian people truly want, Putin has made that decision for them; and the West now stands confronted by a Russia that is unambiguously the enraged alpha male of Surkov’s formulation.

The horrors of Bucha also make it much harder for the world to slam on the ethical reverse gear and desperately seek some sort of woolly compromise. How can sanctions possibly be lifted from a regime that is capable of such a barbarous strategy (and a strategy it most certainly is)? How can we ever again do business with a gang of Kremlin butchers who deserve not a return to the podium of global respectability but a speedy passage to the dock at The Hague?

Again, Zelensky knows all this, which is why he is, with increasing urgency, requesting weapons that cannot plausibly be described as defensive: planes, tanks and anti-ship missiles. It appears that the Starstreak portable missile system, manufactured in Belfast, is proving effective against Russian helicopters: Putin will be asking not only who is supplying this high-tech kit to Ukrainian forces but also who has provided training and assistance with its maintenance. Officially, Nato and its members are staying out of this conflict. In the Kremlin, that claim must seem increasingly insolent.

All of which is to say that Russia’s failure in Kyiv and other urban centres should be seen as a serious tactical setback rather than a definitive strategic calamity; nor as the beginning of the end, so to speak. This invasion is different in kind to the opportunistic conflicts Putin fought in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea; his campaigns of cyberwarfare; his poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripals and many others. 

This final assault on Ukraine – a war of imperial aggression – was always going to be all or nothing. Putin knows that. So too does Zelensky. 

What about the West? We talk a good game about the great struggle between autocracy and democracy, between liberty and tyranny; about the need for Putin to fail and be seen to fail; about holding war criminals to account.

But are we ready to pay the price? To adapt Sontag’s question, do we feel too safe – too cosily detached – truly to commit ourselves to Ukraine’s struggle and to take risks. On the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, Clive Myrie asked Herman Haluschenko, Ukraine’s Energy Minister, about the prospective pain of rising prices for Western consumers. 

Haluschenko was unimpressed: “Concerning the prices, you know, that’s the price of your freedom.” This is absolutely true. But it poses huge and forbidding questions. 

Have we in the West lost the ability to think like this? Are we capable of seeing the thread that twitches between Ukraine’s plight and our own geopolitical fate? Are we capable of sacrificing a measure of comfort to help preserve the ideals of a civilisation?

To feel horror in the face of atrocity is mere reflex. What we owe the fallen of Bucha – and elsewhere – is honest answers.

Photograph by Rodrigo Abd/AP/Shutterstock