Analysis |

Russian War Crimes in Ukraine Are Exposed. Will That Change Anything?

Based on the wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, it was widely assumed that Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine. The shocking footage from Kyiv is unlikely to alter Western policy, but makes a cease-fire less likely

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A soldier comforting an 82-year-old Ukrainian woman after she was evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, last week.
A soldier comforting an 82-year-old Ukrainian woman after she was evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, last week. Credit: Rodrigo Abd/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The gruesome footage revealed over the weekend in the Kyiv suburbs of Irpin and Bucha – of the bodies of Ukrainian civilians, some with their hands bound, both lying by the roadside and in shallow graves – tells an inescapable story. The Russian troops who occupied those areas in the past four weeks, before being pushed back by the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive, carried out widespread murders among the occupied population before retreating northward, their vehicles laden with pillaged property, to the Belarusian border.

Until now, there have been multiple reports of murder, rape and looting in the areas of Russian occupation, and of course claims by the Ukrainian government of atrocities. The sights from the streets of Irpin and Bucha now leave little doubt that war crimes have been carried out systematically.

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In some places, there seem to have been rushed attempts to hide it up by trying to burn or bury the bodies. But these cover-ups were as undisciplined and botched as the rest of the Russian operations have been. However, if the Russians had more time before fleeing the battlefield, and if it wasn’t for the presence of cameras – both of private citizens and soldiers, and the international media reporting from Ukraine – they would have been able to cover up at least part of the truth.

In other parts of Ukraine, particularly in the southeast where Russia is still in control of most of the areas it managed to capture in the initial stages of the war, there is very little media presence. The Ukrainian communication networks have been shut down and civilians forced to use Russian SIM cards, preventing them from sharing images.

Mayors, civil activists and journalists are being kidnapped and killed to prevent the truth coming out. If anything, the reports emerging from those regions are even worse than those we’re now seeing around Kyiv, where the Ukrainian military is back in control.

Sadly, there is nothing to be surprised about. It all tallies with the reports from previous war zones in which the Russian army has been active in recent decades. From the two wars in Chechnya, from Georgia and, most recently, the war in Syria – where Russia provided the firepower from the air, bombing undefended civilian areas, and where the forces on the ground were the Assad regime or provided by its Iranian allies, Hezbollah and other Shia militias.

Similar reports came from countries like Libya and Mali, where Russia was not officially involved but the mercenaries of the Wagner Group – the unofficial foreign legion of the Kremlin – have been deployed.

The only difference in this case is that, for the first time in Vladimir Putin’s wars, an area captured by his forces has been swiftly liberated while the physical evidence is still there on the ground and, also for the first time, the world’s attention is fully focused on the crime scene.

But will that actually change anything?

Even without the full media coverage we now have from the suburbs of Kyiv, there was ample evidence of Russian war crimes being committed on all those battlefields over the past two decades, from Grozny to Aleppo. Anyone who cared to know, knew full well. The United States and its allies chose not to intervene in Syria, even before the Russians deployed there in 2015 and President Barack Obama reneged on his “red line” commitment to respond to the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Putin knew then that his Sukhoi bombers could target hospitals and bakeries with impunity.

Ukrainian soldiers carrying the bodies of civilians killed by Russian forces in Irpin, close to Kyiv, last week.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Obama’s vice president and now successor in the White House, Joe Biden, has a red line of his own: he won’t act directly in Ukraine, not even to extend at the request of the Ukrainian government a no-fly zone to protect civilians in western Ukraine.

The evidence of war crimes won’t change that policy, either. Biden already knew what was going on from his daily intelligence briefings; the footage just confirmed that.

The same calculations and concern at provoking Putin continue to exist. Even now. The same is true of Biden’s Western allies and of Israel as well, which will stick to its “neutrality” policy of issuing bland statements of concern and the occasional mild condemnation.

In Israel’s case as well, this is a rerun of Syria. Despite some voices in the security establishment and cabinet calling for the bombing of Bashar Assad’s air bases to help protect civilians, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to act against the regime. And when Russia deployed to Syria, he rushed to a meeting with Putin, with whom he agreed a deal whereby Israel would do nothing to harm Assad as long as Russia didn’t impede Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria against Iranian assets.

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s “government of change” has left that particular Netanyahu policy unchanged. Russian war crimes aren’t going to change it either.

A man and child on a bicycle disovering the body of a civilian lying on a street in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, on Saturday.Credit: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Nothing will change but, if anything, this latest development will make the already remote chance of Russia and Ukraine reaching a cease-fire agreement even more distant.

Putin clearly has only one intention: suppressing by any means any spirit of Ukrainian independence, no matter how many Ukrainians – whom he considers disloyal Russians – happen to die in the process.

And now that the full truth of what is happening in the Russian-occupied zones is coming out, the Ukrainian government will be in no position to face its own people if it agrees to a cease-fire where Russia remains in control of parts of the east.

The world can no longer escape the truth of what is happening in Ukraine, but that is unlikely to change anything.

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