Civilians tortured, executed, decapitated, with children not excepted. Refugees not allowed safe passage, but bombed or disappeared. Rape reintroduced as an instrument of war. Non-military targets bombed to pulverization — apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, theatres. Whole cities razed. The landscape seeded with landmines.
All this atrocity and decimation was, until February 24, prohibited by international law and convention. Every rule of the rules-based international order is being desecrated, daily now, in Vladimir Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, waged in his mad pursuit to “make Russia great again.”
For the world, Putin’s war crimes came into sharp focus in Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, where hundreds of dead bodies were found strewn in streets, alleyways, backyards. Now, with the war in its tenth week, there are more Buchas. And one shudders at the Buchas to come, especially if Putin, denied early victory by Ukraine’s ferocious resistance, resorts to biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons — bringing down the rules-based order entirely.
Which is why we must stay focused. As the war grinds on, becoming a war of attrition, atrocity and decimation may become mere background, mere iconography, no longer mourned or even remarked. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky worries aloud that the world’s attention may begin to flag. Attrition of attention would cap Ukraine’s tragedy — and be tragic for the world.
In global terms, there are many imperatives why Ukraine must prevail in this History-upending war — to prevent an economic crisis as well as crises in food supply, energy, forced migration and social unrest, climate. But a leading imperative must be restoration of rules-based conduct of war — the rules that restrict war to combatants only, which code the parties to a legal war strain to observe, on pain of a postwar accounting (see: the Nuremberg trials after World War II). But Putin’s war in Ukraine is illegal, per the Law of Armed Conflict: His is a war of aggression — and, clearly, he views atrocity and decimation as valid instruments of war. Wars will happen, but they must be restricted. Which is why Ukraine must win and the rules-based order be saved.
As Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall writes, “The price of failure — the true cost of a Putin victory — could be staggering.” Pointing to a “grim” future if Putin continues “to wage war with impunity, commit more heinous crimes, threaten nuclear and chemical blackmail, and trash the U.N. charter,” Tisdall writes: “The broader, negative political impact of war, should it rage on indefinitely, is incalculable. The U.N.’s future as an authoritative global forum, lawmaker, and peacekeeper is in jeopardy. At risk, too, is the credibility of the international court of justice….and the entire system of war crimes prosecutions. In terms of democratic norms and human rights, the full or partial subjugation of Ukraine would spell disaster for the international rules-based order — and a triumph for autocrats everywhere.” In sum, “a whole new world of pain.”
Or as Robert Kagan’s brilliant primer states in its title: “The Jungle Grows Back.”
For millennia, war’s brutality was a given: No holds barred, no rules imposed. But in 1864, in the aftermath of the epically bloody Crimean War — History’s irony: Crimea is in present-day Ukraine — the First Geneva Convention was signed, providing for amelioration of the wounded in the field. Succeeding conventions expanded the scope: the Second (1906) extends the same protections in maritime warfare; the Third (1929) protects prisoners of war; and the Fourth (1949) protects civilians and civilian infrastructure (homes, land, water, etc.). Also protected: those giving medical aid to the wounded. Children and their special protection in armed conflict were addressed after World War II with additional protocols. Bolstering these protections are specific prohibitions against torture, rape, chemical and biological weapons, landmines, etc.
All these protections and prohibitions — all of them — secured by various Geneva Conventions (which by the way Russia is signatory to), Russia has vaporized with its depredations in Ukraine. If Putin now wins Ukraine, it heralds a far darker age: Wartime would sink back to barbarity, atrocity and decimation would become “normalized,” with no recourse to the Law and to Justice, because Law and Justice would no longer exist.
It is a prospect unbearable in its gravity. The stakes — barbarity vs. rules-based war — are clear.
Which may explain why the world remains fixated on Putin’s war in Ukraine: We grieve for the suffering Ukrainians — and we also see how that suffering becomes our own if barbarity “wins” and our nations engage with barbarians. No doubt this prospect hovers over the president of the American superpower, Joe Biden, as he maneuvers along the trip-wire: providing Ukraine with all the weaponry it needs, while repeatedly declaring no NATO or American troops will enter the war, provoking Putin into total lawlessness. Thus this war’s tragedy: Ukraine’s war is, in truth, our war too, but Ukraine is doing the fighting and dying, is enduring the atrocity and decimation.
Meanwhile, TV talking-heads keep saying “This war will get uglier,” which only underscores the dearth of tools available to combat barbarity, short of engaging in the combat. Meanwhile, Ukraine is reportedly “crawling with” human rights investigators, gathering evidence of alleged war crimes for future trial — that is, if Putin loses. Meanwhile, Russian troops eliminate that evidence, with mobile crematoria and mass graves. Meanwhile, Putin “honors” the “heroism and bravery” of his troops’ actions — atrocities — in Bucha. Meanwhile, acting now while there’s still some semblance of law and not waiting for victory to plead before an international tribunal, Ukraine has launched its own war crimes trial of a Russian soldier charged with killing an unarmed civilian in northeast Ukraine. (That soldier now pleads guilty.] Meanwhile, the cruelty of all the atrocity and decimation, streamed, leaves the world traumatized and heartbroken….
In the British film, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” made and set in the depths of World War II (1943), the Englishman Clive and his childhood friend, a German named Theo, have a cathartic exchange at the end. Theo, on the losing side in World War I, referring to that war says to Clive, “You forgot to learn the moral”: that Clive, “educated as a gentleman and sportsman,” now faces an even worse enemy, “the most devilish idea ever invented, Nazism.” And if England loses, “there won’t be a return match next year, perhaps not even in 100 years.”
In the same vein, Ukraine must win, with the West’s unwavering support, against this historical moment’s “most devilish idea” — Putin’s machine of atrocity and decimation. Nothing less than Civilization hangs in the balance.