There is perhaps a slim chance that such gruesome images will become emblematic of a turning point in the war by catalyzing more robust Western action and new diplomatic engagement that could further turn the tide of the conflict against Russia.
Neither is likely to happen, not least because the West has imposed limits on its own action to avoid direct conflict with Moscow, which has nuclear weapons. And the Russian leader has always considered the lives of civilians in his own way cheap.
Yet evidence of atrocities underscores a tragic realization that such evil is not simply the historical legacy of wars long past.
It will force leaders and citizens to pose – or remove – the same moral dilemma faced by previous generations, mostly in retrospect: why hasn’t more been done to save innocent people from a such horror?
The world shouldn’t be shocked
The lifeless bodies of civilians, apparently killed in execution style, littering the streets of Bucha have prompted shocked tweets and comments from world leaders.
But the horrific scenes should come as no shock to anyone familiar with Putin’s brutal tactics and the reality of a ruthless ground war.
Instead, they are the almost inevitable result of a vicious and illegal invasion by a sovereign nation, a backlash from a beaten Russian army that didn’t expect much fighting, and fearsome doctrines of the Kremlin who rained carnage on Chechnya and Syria, as an all-out war of the 1940s unfolds 20 years into the 21st century.
They stem from the same cruel impulses as the bombardment of cities and hospitals, apartment buildings and air-raid shelters by Russian forces in an operation that looks, to most of the world, as an attempt to wipe out Ukraine map.
Zelensky calls for eradicating ‘such evil’
“The world has already seen many war crimes. At different times. On different continents. But it is time to do everything in our power to make Russian military war crimes the latest manifestation of a such evil on earth,” he said.
Zelensky’s poignant statement in a video address was a variation on the familiar refrain – following atrocities from Syria to Cambodia, and from Rwanda to Bosnia over the past 50 years, and stretching further back to the Nazi Holocaust – that such inhumanity must never be allowed to rule freely again.
The West simply does not have the political will, the full military commitment, the international legal mandate – or an acceptance of the geopolitical consequences that would ensue – to undertake interventions aimed at preventing widespread war crimes.
The most pressing question now is whether the individual tragedies of civilians killed without mercy in Ukraine will do anything to mitigate the larger tragedy of the conflict that indirectly led to their deaths.
The Ukrainian people have been exposed to such reprisals since Biden and other Western leaders decided that direct military intervention in the conflict – including the creation of no-fly zones over non-member Ukraine NATO – could trigger a war crisis with Russia, which would risk a nuclear escalation that would threaten all of humanity.
In the long term, such assessments may well be conservative. The first duty of an elected leader is the safety and security of his own people.
Putin clearly understands the West’s dilemma. His rattling nuclear saber at the start of the invasion, for example, sparked widespread alarm in the West and speculation about the mental and emotional state of the man with his finger on Russia’s nuclear button.
As the United States has supplied huge quantities of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, fear of trespassing an invisible red line and provoking Putin has prompted Biden and other NATO leaders to thwart a plan by Poland to send in Soviet-era aircraft to help Zelensky’s pilots establish sky dominance.
World leaders lament weekend of horror
The immediate practical impact of Bucha’s horrific images has been to spark dismay and condemnation from Western governments, demands for war crimes investigations and promises of even harsher sanctions against Putin’s regime.
It is possible that the descent into even deeper horror in Ukraine this weekend could trigger an official war crimes investigation. But the UN tribunal in The Hague does not conduct trials in absentia. So justice could be years away at best. And while it’s worth investigating and documenting war crimes and holding accountable those lower in the chain of command, it’s hard to see any circumstances in the near future under which Russia would hand Putin over. .
Any action by the United Nations would surely be met with a Russian veto in the Security Council. Another of the council’s five permanent members, China, would likely view such investigations as potentially threatening given its own human rights record.
This limited opportunity for accountability means the West could use its most familiar tool – more sanctions against Russia, the people around Putin and the Russian leader himself. The alleged atrocities in Ukraine will certainly lead to more demands from Western leaders to send more lethal aid to the government in Kyiv. It is even harder to see Russia being allowed to resume regular diplomatic activity with Western leaders, at least while Putin is in power.
But despite the power of Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, the debilitating costs imposed on the Russian economy, and the pariah status that now stigmatizes Russia, there is little evidence that Putin will be induced to abandon civilians. This has never been part of his character in over 20 years of strongman rule.
And while Russian forces appear to be regrouping away from kyiv — a factor in uncovering the atrocities they apparently left behind — Putin is giving every indication of digging into a long, cemented war in eastern Ukraine.
Indignation is therefore, for the moment, the dominant Western reaction.
No doubt the expressions of disgust were sincere. But at times like these, world leaders often seem caught up in contests over who can register the most horror in a process of rhetorical inflation that hides the real issues at stake.
Johnson, for example, warned that “no denial or disinformation from the Kremlin can hide what we all know to be the truth: Putin is desperate, his invasion is failing, and Ukraine’s resolve has never been stronger.” .
But nothing Johnson said is likely to change the Russian leader’s ruthless approach and willingness to inflict the most brutal pain on civilians. The lessons of history and the strategic limits of the West further mean that it is almost certain that the gruesome scenes uncovered at Bucha over the weekend are far from the latest or worst crimes against humanity in this vicious war.