There is something uniquely unsettling about the Russian atrocities in Bucha, the Ukrainian village, not far from Kyiv, where residents’ bodies were found with hands tied behind their backs, bullet holes in their heads, bodies dumped in ditches or left to rot in the streets.
Most of the civilian deaths we’d seen so far in this war—the results of Russian bombs, missiles, and artillery shells—have had an air of abstraction. Those who dropped or fired those weapons were too far away to see the consequences. They and their victims can regard one another as faceless cogs in a war machine.
But the murders in Bucha require a monstrousness, even if the number of their murders are much lower than those inflicted from out of sight.
Are these war crimes? Certainly. Acts of genocide? Possibly. However they’re described, they will prolong this war, intensify passions on both sides, and make a negotiated peace—already increasingly unlikely—much more difficult still.
Those who committed these deeds, up close, must have regarded their prey as something less than human. The survivors of these crimes must view the perpetrator as inhuman as well—though with greater justification. It is hard for combatants or politicians from the two sides, animated with such venom, to sit together in the same room and make peace or discuss compromises.
Dehumanization is a time-tested psychological tactic in warfare; it makes it easier for humans to kill each other, and, whether intentionally or not, it encourages atrocities. In some wars, racism or sectarianism has injected the requisite stream of virulent hatred by turning the enemy into “the other.” But in the Russia-Ukraine war, the people on both sides are of the same Slavic background. Vladimir Putin—like many other Russians, by the way—doesn’t even regard Ukraine as a real country, but rather as a part of Russia.
This may be why, to whip up popular support for his colonial adventure, Putin has concocted the notion that the government in Kyiv is a “Nazi” regime—invoking the most bone-chilling enemy in Russian history.
Whether intentionally or not, he has played into Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to galvanize Ukrainians—as well as the international community—by pronouncing Russia’s most savage acts of violence as “genocide.” One of his top advisers, Mikhailo Podolyak elaborated the point, tweeting that “the purpose” of Russia’s military operation is “the humiliation and extermination of Ukrainians.”
It’s debatable whether the mass killings in Bucha, Mariupol, and elsewhere strictly constitute a “genocide”—which legally means the killing of people in a particular race, religion, or nationality in order to exterminate the entire group. But that shouldn’t distract from a more consequential point: If Putin and Zelensky and those around them believe that the purpose of the war is to exterminate Ukrainians because they’re Ukrainians, or to wipe out Ukraine as a nation for whatever reason, then this war is going to continue for quite a while longer.
Under these circumstances, one side or the other would have to face the prospect of total defeat before accepting any compromises. And, for the moment, neither side is near a state of total defeat; both sides have cause to believe that they can, in some stretched meaning of the word, win.
Where, then, does this leave the United States and its allies? What should we all do?
Along with several other NATO leaders, President Biden, who this week said Putin should stand trial for war crimes, has stepped up military aid to Ukraine. Even before the revelations at Bucha, he sent more than $2 billion worth of weapons, with still more on the way, and supplied considerable intelligence information.
But they have stopped short of crossing two red lines: They will not send their own troops or pilots to fight directly against Russians; and they will not turn over combat aircraft because the planes have the range to strike targets inside Russia, and some over-excited Ukrainian pilot might cross the border.
The only reason for not crossing these red lines is clear: Russia has nuclear weapons, and Putin has threatened to use some if the U.S. or NATO intervenes directly in this war. Maybe he’s bluffing, but, if so, it’s the sort of bluff that the nuclear powers have learned not to call. Prudence in this realm is what has kept them all from blowing up the world these last several decades.
This is the tragic asymmetry of the war: To Ukrainians, who are fighting for the survival of their country, this is a “total war;” but to Americans and our allies, it isn’t, and we can’t afford to let it become one.
And yet the soaring violence and the appalling inhumanity in Bucha, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian towns are stirring demands—not just from Zelensky, but among citizens in the aiding countries, including the United States—that we do more.
The demand has a logical, as well as an emotional, basis. If the war is going to go on for a long time; if we are on Ukraine’s side; and if Russia is going to kill more and more civilians, as Ukraine captures or liberates more territory, then we should do as much as possible to help Ukraine win this war quickly—short of actions that might lead Putin to go nuclear.
That essentially means doing more of what we’re already doing. We could send still more arms, more quickly—say, 500 switchblade drones instead of 100. All types of weapons should be on the table for transfer, except for nuclear weapons (obviously) and missiles of a range that could strike Russia. Biden should rethink his ban on sending Soviet-built MiG-29s fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots know how to fly. Yes, some of those pilots could fly one across the border, but if this didn’t happen—or even if it did once or twice—would Putin be moved to push the button? Seems unlikely.
Finally, I assume that intelligence agencies are trying to figure out whether the atrocities in Bucha are part of some genocidal policy in the Kremlin—or simply the sort of crime that sometimes happens in a brutal war when soldiers, many of them conscripts, lack competent leaders, find themselves surrounded on all sides, are forced to beat a retreat, and lash out at anyone and everyone who might be considered the enemy. Not to minimize these recent horrors or to excuse anyone who commits these most dreadful of crimes, but wars have brought out even more appalling horrors in the past, including among American soldiers. (See, for instance, My Lai, where the men of Charlie Company killed more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, up close, in one day, just because they were Vietnamese.)
If Putin wants to wipe out Ukrainians as a race or nationality, there’s nothing to do but help Kyiv win the war swiftly. If this isn’t Putin’s real aim, then there may yet be hope for a negotiated settlement.
It’s a dim, distant hope, however. Both sides still have a lot of fighting to do before either of them gives up. And the combination of civilian atrocities and maximalist rhetoric makes the politics of a peace treaty difficult. Even if Putin and Zelensky don’t believe their rhetoric about Nazis and genocide, they have roused many of their people to believe it, and it will be hard to coax them back down. It will be very difficult for Zelensky to sign a peace deal that gives Russia any newly occupied Ukrainian territory. Putin has more flexibility, owing to his one-man rule in the Kremlin and his total control of the media. For that reason, and because he is the aggressor in this war, the biggest concessions in any deal should come from him.