After the Ukrainian Armed Forces pushed the Russian troops out of the northern parts of the country, including the outskirts of Kyiv, there was no time for celebration. The grim discoveries in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel were broadcast around the world, revealing a macabre picture: dead and mutilated bodies of men, women, children and animals, many with signs of torture. Since then, Russia has been building up its efforts for an offensive in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, putting extra pressure on Kharkiv in the north-east and Mariupol, the port city on the Sea of Azov that would provide it with ground passage to Crimea, that it annexed in 2014. The war is far from over, and many experts warn that the worst is still to come. But are more civilian deaths and bigger destruction of Ukraine unavoidable?
I believe not, yet to prevent the repetition of Bucha, Ukraine will need much stronger support from its allies. The West is often praised for a united front in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, this unity does not translate into the forceful action that Ukraine would like to see from its friends. That is why, on a daily basis, President Zelensky speaks to parliaments around the globe to garner more help for Ukraine and Ukrainians. The longer this war goes on, the more war crimes will be committed and bigger damages will be sustained by the global economy and ecology. So far, the help offered has been impressive, but insufficient to stop Russia’s war machine. Ukraine is promised more assertive action if or when Russia escalates, for example, by using biological or chemical weapons. But why wait for more atrocities? Even before the world saw the photos from Bucha or Kramatorsk, where a Russian rocket struck the train station with thousands waiting for evacuation, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into Russia’s war crimes, based on referrals of 41 countries, with the ICC’s chief prosecutor describing Ukraine as a “crime scene”. At the time of writing, 42 states support the initiative. Ukraine reports daily that activists, journalists and local politicians are kidnapped by Russians. Russia has also been forcefully deporting Ukrainians: from Mariupol alone over 30,000 were taken. These actions are reminiscent of Stalin’s policies of forced deportation of Ukrainians to Siberia and other remote areas of the Soviet Union. It took decades to uncover Stalin’s crimes, but we learn about Putin’s atrocities much faster in the XXIst century. The question is: will the western democracies do something to stop them? Even when, on 11 April 2022, Ukraine reported the suspected use by Russians of chemical weapons, the West needed more proof to take a tougher stance against Russia.
But what proof is needed? Are deaths of 10,000 civilians in Mariupol, not enough for the introduction of tougher sanctions against Russia and its accomplice, Belarus? Does dropping phosphorus bombs not warrant giving Ukraine better air defence systems, aircraft and offensive weapons? It is of course understandable that leaders of western democracies want to keep something up their sleeve in case Russia escalates further, but this behaviour is interpreted by Russia as an invitation to do just that. Moscow sees it as a sign of weakness of the West, which, according to the Russian media and government, has declared war on Russia. So why wait if the cost of hesitation is thousands of human lives? Besides, Ukraine is not asking for “boots on the ground” but, even so, the EU, the US and other countries, are still reluctant to increase pressure on Russia.
While it is clear that Putin did not achieve any strategic wins in Ukraine so far, he will continue his mission of destruction. If we read and listen carefully to what Putin has been saying about Ukraine for over a decade and compare his proclamations with the Russian aggression in Ukraine so far, the threat of another genocide on European soil does not seem that unlikely. With his words and through the actions of the Russian army, Putin tells the world again and again that Ukraine and the Ukrainian people have no right to exist. It is not just the annihilation of Ukrainians and the destruction of their homes that Russia is seeking. It is also set on destroying Ukraine’s vibrant cultural heritage and erasing its history. Despite the proclamations emanating from Russian propaganda, Ukraine has a unique and antient history that predates that of the Russian state. Kyiv and Chernihiv are older than any Russian city, yet they have been relentlessly bombed since the start of the war. Kyiv has been spared the worst so far, but not so much due to Russia’s mercy but rather to the work of the Ukrainian Army. In Ukraine, nothing is safe from Russian attacks: schools, museums, libraries, churches, including the Holy Mountains Lavra that dates back to the early 17th century, and the Holocaust memorials of Babyn Yar in Kyiv and Drobytsky Yar in Kharkiv have already suffered from Russian air strikes. It was also reported that in parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts under temporary occupation, Russia set up squads of military police that raided schools and libraries to confiscate and destroy Ukrainian literature and history books. These squads use lists of “extremist literature” that include authors and historic figures from recent and more distant past such as Vachtang Kipiani, a journalist, currently in the Ukrainian army, who wrote about the role of Putin’s close friend and Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk in the trial of the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus and the Ukrainian hetman Ivan Mazepa, seen as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia.
While there is very little chance of Putin achieving his main aim of making Ukraine part of a new Russian empire, indiscriminate killing of civilians and the ruin of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and cultural heritage is set to continue and even intensify. Now, it is going to be mainly contained in the east and south of the country. The Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer battalions will not be frightened into surrender because they understand that this is a war for survival. At the same time, the continuation of atrocities will make more civilians leave their homes or temporary shelter they sought in foreign to them parts of Ukraine. Many will travel further into Europe and other continents as Poland and other neighbouring countries are already running out of space and good will. This will test the resolve of the EU and its transatlantic partners to stretch a helping hand to Ukrainians, especially as right-wing voices, fuelled by Russian propaganda, became more audible and local populations get to feel the squeeze from the rising cost of living, partly fuelled by the sanctions on Russia.
Now, therefore, it is high time that the West switched from reacting to pre-empting. Ukraine needs the full economic isolation of Russia and Belarus (the latter is used as a launching pad for missiles into Ukraine but also as a loophole for overcoming sanctions), more humanitarian aid and, most importantly, a constant supply of weapons, especially heavy artillery, air defence systems, combat aircraft and medium to long-range anti-aircraft missile systems. Ukrainians have shown that they have no fear in the face of the Russian aggression; now we call on the world to also “be not afraid”, as Putin will not stop on Ukraine’s borders if he is not stopped.
Dr Anastasiia Kudlenko
Research Fellow, Oxford Belarus Observatory, University of Oxford.