Don’t become desensitized to Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine

KYIV — What surprises one the most on a visit to Ukraine’s capital is how peaceful the city feels. By local standards, traffic is light and the trendy hipster cafés are rarely full. Yet, notwithstanding ubiquitous roadblocks, a striking sense of normality is in the air. Sunbathers relax on the beach by the Dnipro River, skateboarders ride through manicured parks, and most locals seem to summarily ignore the frequent air-raid sirens.

Yet a mere 20 minutes from the downtown, 80% of all buildings in Irpin, a 60,000-strong suburb, were destroyed during the Russian siege in March. For four weeks, those unable to flee hid in the basements of their apartment blocks without water, food, medicine or electricity. Only a tiny bodega-like store on the main street was being supplied with the most basic necessities and served as a charge-station for cellphones. Getting there under artillery fire proved fatal for many.

In neighboring Bucha, there is not much to see these days, other than a few houses on Vok’zalna Street, destroyed during the strike on Ramzan Kadyrov’s tank column in April. Yet exactly three months ago the quaint suburb with modest single-family homes was the site of some of the worst mass killings in living memory, with more than a thousand Ukrainian civilians executed by retreating Russian troops, many at point-blank range.

Volunteers load bodies of civilians killed in Bucha onto a truck to be taken to a morgue for investigation, in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 12, 2022.
Volunteers load bodies of civilians killed in Bucha onto a truck to be taken to a morgue for investigation after a heavy Russian attack.
AP/Rodrigo Abd

On Sunday, during the G-7 summit in the Bavarian Alps, Russian precision-guided rockets hit a nine-story apartment block and a daycare in Kyiv. That fact alone tells one everything one needs to know about the nature of Russia’s “special military operation” aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine. The following day, Russia bombed a shopping mall in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine.

This is a campaign of terror, aiming to demoralize the Ukrainian public into submission and then proceed with the erasure of Ukrainian nationhood.

I, for one, have no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin will eventually fail. “The Russians think their brutality will make us fear them,” one Ukrainian told me. “In reality, it is only making us angry.”

A cemetery worker takes a rest from working on the graves of civilians killed in Bucha during the war with Russia, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday April 14, 2022.
In April, Russian troops executed more than a thousand Ukrainian civilians.
AP/Rodrigo Abd

Everywhere, there is an overwhelming strength of resilience and quiet determination — reminiscent of many descriptions of the British “stiff upper lip” during the Blitz. In Irpin, a middle-aged man suddenly walked out of his half-bombed building. The apartment is uninhabitable, he said, but his plants need watering. Minutes later, a mother with a toddler on their postprandial constitutional pass by us, as if oblivious to their apocalyptic surroundings. Life, in short, goes on.

Ukraine’s territorial defenses, set up just weeks before the Russian invasion, are being boosted, with more and better-quality training extended to hundreds of thousands of reservists. In and around Kyiv, the roadblocks set up in March to stop advancing Russian troops are being fortified in anticipation of a possible return of the invaders.

Yet the war is taking a horrifying toll. On Sunday during my visit, Kyiv’s Maidan held a vigil for Roman Ratushnyi, one of the student leaders of the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” who was killed by Russians in Izyum, aged 24.

A Ukrainian friend had to excuse herself shortly after arriving in Irpin with our group, taking an Uber back to the city — the visual overload of senseless destruction was simply too much to process.

The Ukrainians are determined to make it stop. When exactly they do so and how lasting the resulting political settlement is, however, remain a matter of political choice for the Biden administration and its European partners.

If equipped with modern, NATO-grade weaponry — artillery, tanks, fighter jets, anti-ship missiles — Ukraine can repel the flailing Russian invaders within months, if not weeks. If the assistance slows down, Ukrainians will still likely hold the line in Donbas and in the south. Yet undoing Russia’s territorial gains and signaling to the world that Putin has been defeated may well be out of their reach.

Firefighters work at the scene of a residential building following explosions, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, June 26, 2022.
On June 26, Russia launched an attack on a residential building and daycare center in Kyiv.
AP/Nariman El-Mofty

Those who argue against a maximalist form of military assistance to Ukraine on prudential grounds are wrong. It is our weakness and hesitation, not doubling down in support of Ukraine, that are perceived as escalatory by the Kremlin. More seriously still, not pushing forcefully against a war of conquest in Europe, which seeks to eradicate a nation of 40 million, is a serious moral failing.

Prioritizing our own comforts over the lives of those who are fighting not only to defend their own country but some of the West’s most fundamental values — freedom, democracy, national self-determination — will not be remembered fondly by history.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

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