Like Babyn Yar in nearby Kyiv, Bucha is destined to be remembered as a place of unspeakable horror. Ukrainian liberators of the town found the streets strewn with corpses, many of them bound and mutilated. Some had been tortured or raped before they were massacred. Mass graves have also been found. Among the victims are children. The Russian occupation of the Kyiv region is now over, but the invaders turned its towns and villages into charnel houses. There is every reason to think that other occupied provinces in the east and south of Ukraine are suffering similarly.
For these massacres are not accidental. Evidence will take time to assemble, but it is likely that the Russian forces arrived with orders to show no mercy to any civilians deemed to be supporters of the Zelensky government. In their eyes, Ukrainian nationalists had already been dehumanised as “Nazis”. This is what Vladimir Putin means when he says that one of the aims of his “special operation” is the “denazification” of Ukraine. Behind the lines, his troops and secret police are systematically killing, raping and deporting civilians, not only to crush resistance but to erase Ukraine from the map. One of the elements that differentiate crimes against humanity from war crimes is that the former are planned, systematic attacks on an entire population, whereas war crimes may be isolated incidents of brutality. The signs are that Russia has been and still is committing both.
Many have observed that Putin is repeating the kind of terror tactics he used in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria. This is true, but it is not the whole story. Ukraine itself endured four genocidal episodes in the first half of the last century: the crushing of Ukrainian independence by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, 1918-21; Stalin’s “terror famine” in the early 1930s, now known as the Holodomor, in which at least four million were deliberately starved; the Nazi occupation, including the “Holocaust by bullets”, in which five million died; and the épuration that followed the Soviet victory, in which half a million Ukrainians accused of collaboration or nationalism were deported or killed.
For older people, the images from Bucha are bound to trigger bitter memories of these horrors. The majority will henceforth regard their neighbours to the east, not as ethnic and linguistic cousins, but as murderers and enemies. The blood feud between Ukrainians and Russians, which Khrushchev ended after Stalin’s death and which had abated over the intervening generations, has resumed.
For this reason alone, until the rest of Ukraine is liberated, there can be no question of a ceasefire, let alone a permanent peace treaty. The crimes against humanity now being committed by the occupation can only be punished if Russia is defeated. NATO, having failed to deter the invasion, now has a moral obligation to help bring it to a speedy end. The Kremlin’s spokesman claims that the massacres have been staged by Kyiv. The sooner that neutral and internationally recognised organisations are allowed to investigate, the sooner such propaganda is likely to be exposed as mendacious, if that is the case.
The free world is eager to see Putin brought to justice for these crimes. That can only happen, if at all, after he ceases to be the Russian head of state. The possibility of his removal from office is no longer so remote. A parallel case was the Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, who held power from 1989 until 2000. Following Yugoslavia’s collapse, he fought vicious wars against his neighbours and, eventually, NATO forces. He was eventually deposed after attempting to rig the election, arrested for corruption and later extradited to face charges at the International Criminal Court for his crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Kosovo. He died in The Hague in 2006 before he could stand trial, but his accomplices in ethic cleansing, Mladić and Karadzić, were eventually captured, convicted and sentenced.
The assumption has been that Putin could only fall by a coup d’état or a popular uprising. Yet the global wave of revulsion that has greeted the images from Bucha may yet change that calculus. Putin’s popularity has risen as a result of the war, supposedly to unprecedented levels. It could yet fall again as the realisation dawns on Russians that their leader has dragged them into a catastrophic conflict with the rest of the world which can only end if he is removed from office.
The next Presidential election in Russia is due in 2024. If by then the full impact of the war in Ukraine is being felt at every level of society and Putin is seen not only as a pariah but also as a loser, even the dark arts of election fraud may be in vain. In 2020, after just such an attempt at ballot-rigging in Belarus, his satrap Aleksandr Lukashenko would have been evicted from the presidential palace without Russian military intervention. There is nobody to save Putin except himself.
Russians are intensely patriotic, but after military defeats and terrible hardships they turned against both the Tsarist and Communist regimes. Above all, the images from Bucha will now shadow and haunt him for the rest of his days. The nation of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, of Sharansky and Navalny and countless other dissidents cannot be deceived indefinitely.
Daniel Johnsonis the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON
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