“One could not look at what is happening there without compassion. It is simply impossible to endure all this, and it is necessary to stop this nightmare immediately. This genocide against millions of people living there”.
Only days before the invasion, this is the picture that President Putin painted of Ukraine in his address on February 21st. Russian troops would be cheered as liberators from a genocidal and fascist regime that systemically killed its Russian-speaking citizens. 42 days after the invasion, his words do indeed describe a reality, with two exceptions. It is not Ukraine that is engaged in genocide against millions of people. The soldiers that are cheered as liberators are also not Russian, but Ukrainian, who have reclaimed the Russian-occupied territory in and around Kyiv and the northeast of Ukraine.
The horrendous pictures that have emerged out of Bucha, of charred bodies of executed civilians, of victims of random killings thrown into ditches and of tortured and raped women and children, some with swastikas etched into their skin, cannot be unseen and confirm what has been feared for weeks: that the Russian army is committing systematic killings and large-scale war crimes on Ukrainian soil. This is echoed in the Russia state media where opinion pieces argue for the elimination of Ukraine, its political structure, its culture and its identity. With emerging rumours from Mariupol of thousands of dead civilians and mobile crematoria to erase any evidence, one of the most asked questions of the last days has been whether or not to call it a genocide and what an adequate Western response should look like. For now, more sanctions and military aid have been announced as well as a widespread condemnation of Russia’s war crimes.
Despite satellite images tying the killings in Bucha directly to Russian troops, the Kremlin has accused Western media and governments of having staged the killings while simultaneously maintaining the myth that Ukraine is imbued by Nazis committing genocide. There is an ongoing information war trying to blur the lines of reality and cast doubt on the legitimacy of Western reporting. The motorcade of Russians in and around Berlin voicing their support for the war in Ukraine even after the news broke on Bucha shows less the tremendous ignorance of large crowds but largely the power of messaging. Caught in a narrative controlled by state media and conditioned to mistrust outside sources, many have become complacent with the lies, supporting a war whose atrocities they ignore or do not understand.
As the war progresses this information war will become more and important. There is power in pictures, speeches and videos. President Zelensky continues to utilize media to secure military aid and to make sure that all eyes are on the country. Pictures are carriers of powerful emotions. They create the outcry that can mobilize support and push governments to do more. This goes both ways. Strong dependency of European economies on Russian coal and gas has lobbyists doing do everything in their power to keep the resource streams flowing. For Hungary’s newly re-elected prime minister Viktor Orban economic factors are met with ideology. He has been and is still willing to side with Russia over the EU. Depending on who will win the upcoming French election, its foreign policy might change drastically overnight. On top of that, sanctions are not one-way-streets into Russia; they have global repercussions. The cost of living is steadily rising in Europe, there is the danger of food shortages in Africa and parts of the Middle East and possibly civil unrest in regions most affected by them. Support is always given firmly when no costs are involved beyond set phrases, and much harder to maintain once there are higher stakes involved.
With the retreat of Russian forces from Kyiv and the north-eastern part of Ukraine, the war enters its next phase. The battle for the Donbass region is expected to be a deciding factor for the war, but also a continuation and aggravation of the current fighting, including the continued shelling of civilian structures and war crimes. The Ukrainian government has urged residents in eastern Ukraine to evacuate as fast as possible after witnessing the damage done in the North-East.
The next weeks will show if there are any possible exit strategies left. Up to Bucha, the consensus had been to avoid an escalation of the war by pushing Putin into a corner and still leave him a way out. However, after the massacre, Putin has actually done that to Ukraine. In light of these killings, it is unimaginable that president Zelensky would agree to any concessions nor that the people of Ukraine would accept that. Furthermore, no Western government could now morally justify withdrawing their support. Bucha has been a tipping point in the war, a point of no return.
Global Crisis Watch 180
Friday, 8th April 10:00 am BST