Will Russia Face Justice for Atrocities in Ukraine? Don’t Hold Your Breath
By TARAS TRUNOV
A woman is carried out of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, following a Russian missile strike
In the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, there was, until March 16th, a theatre. This theatre was hosting over 1,000 refugees displaced by Russian bombardment. The word “CHILDREN” was painted on the sidewalk outside, clearly indicating the building’s civilian status, in letters large enough to be visible from satellites. The Russian military simply could not have missed it.
The theatre was bombed anyway.
This particular attack is potentially the deadliest of the entire war, but it is far from alone in its brutality. Since February 24th, Russian artillery and bombs have struck countless civilian targets, including apartment blocks, hospitals, and schools. Even to a casual observer of Russian military history, however, these tactics should come as no surprise. Near-apocalyptic decimation of urban areas is nothing new. Grozny and Aleppo, levelled in 1999 and 2012-2016 respectively, are testament to that. Yet there is something distinct about the nature of Russian violence against Ukraine. In Vladimir Putin’s imagination, Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, and the mere existence of Ukraine as a state independent of Russia is an accident of history. He has proclaimed his war to be one of liberation, seeking to demilitarise and “denazify” the Ukrainian state. How does the deliberate targeting of civilians fit into that narrative?
To some extent, the scale of this violence is baked into Russian operational doctrine. While every modern army places significant emphasis on the use of long-range destructive capabilities such as artillery and air power, Russia leans on them to an unusually high extent. A given Russian army brigade of approximately 3000-4500 personnel operates nearly three times the amount of artillery as an American brigade of comparable size. Given extensive evidence of widespread demoralisation among Russian forces, its superior firepower may be the only reason the invasion has progressed as far as it has. And when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But operational inflexibility alone is inadequate for explaining Russian atrocities. Cluster rockets shred apartment blocks, while 500kg bombs shatter maternity hospitals. Over 80% of the buildings in Mariupol, once a vibrant metropolis, have been destroyed or damaged. And when these crimes are documented, Russian representatives brand the victims as “crisis actors”. There is little military utility in such cruelty, so the intent appears clear: terrorise the Ukrainian population and leadership to the greatest possible extent, to compel them to abandon the fight. The abundance of riot control forces in the first wave of the invasion indicates that the Russian military expected far less resistance than is being offered; and as its casualties mount, so has its willingness to employ terror tactics.
Incandescent rage is the appropriate reaction to these atrocities. We should, however, be realistic about the prospects for bringing the perpetrators to justice: almost none. While global public opinion has widely turned against Putin and Russia as a whole, there is very little leverage remaining that hasn’t already been applied. Those who demand Putin be put on trial in the Hague have only two means of getting what they want: getting the Russian people to deliver him themselves, or storming Moscow and hauling him out.
The likelihood of the former is not encouraging. While there is great discontent within Russia over this war - and such discontent will undoubtedly grow as sanctions erode living conditions across the country - it is questionable whether this will be enough to foment any change of government. The only serious contender for popular democratic challenger to Putin’s rule is Alexei Navalny, who is currently in prison and commands only a relatively small base of support. Possibly the best case scenario is a palace coup that removes Putin from power, and replaces him with a less expansionist, but undoubtedly equally authoritarian, strongman. Such a government might be willing to redress some grievances with the West and Ukraine to secure sanctions relief and return to status quo ante bellum. But it is nigh unthinkable that they would deliver Putin or his collaborators to stand trial abroad, lest the new regime lay the seeds for themselves to be held accountable someday.
The second option, of pulling Putin out from the Kremlin ourselves, is undoubtedly suicidal. Russia’s nuclear chain of command is centralised under Putin, Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defence, and Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff. If Putin believes that l’etat, c’est moi, he may perceive a direct threat to his own rule as a grounds to launch nuclear weapons. If that threat comes from abroad, he is far more likely to sustain the loyalty of subordinates in the security services and nuclear chain of command, as their own lives and positions would be at far greater risk than they would be in a more controlled domestic coup.
There is no happy ending here. This is the way of things in a nuclear age, where a small handful of individuals can act with near-impunity, because the alternative would be casualties measured in tens of millions. Realism is not an excuse for defeatism, however, and there is still much to be done. The flow of military, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine must continue; not just until the war’s conclusion, but long enough for the country to rebuild itself once the fighting ends. Western states and corporations must sustain economic pressure on the Kremlin, to make occupation and further aggression unviable in the long run. And, at home, we must hold to account those who spent decades carrying water for Putin - treating him as a joke or a strongman to be idolised, and accepting money from his criminal empire until the very last minute.
Image: Flickr / tlswan2