Torture and murder in Bucha

The Russian retreat from the Kyiv suburbs left behind mass graves and corpses strewn everywhere for the world to see. The most horrific of these scenes was discovered in the Kyiv oblast suburb of Bucha last week after Ukrainian troops reclaimed the city.

Early reports piece together a sickening mosaic of gratuitous violence inflicted on the city’s residents for weeks.

The Times of London, in a report with the headline “Bodies of mutilated children among horrors the Russians left behind,” interviewed a Ukrainian self-defense-force member who found 18 corpses in the basement of a dacha: “They had been torturing people. Some of them had their ears cut off. Others had teeth pulled out. There were kids like 14, 16 years old, some adults.”

A local coroner, the New York Times reported, had to get a backhoe operator to dig a mass grave in the backyard of a church to accommodate the bodies sent his way.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has said that over 300 people had been tortured and killed in Bucha. (Russian mouthpieces claim the bodies seen on the street were planted there for propaganda purposes, but satellite imagery obtained by the New York Times showed the corpses were there during the Russian occupation.) That town has garnered international media attention, but it’s only one city that Russian forces controlled in the area until the recent pullback. Ukraine’s prosecutor general said the atrocities in another Kyiv-region town, Borodyanka, are even worse. That’s to say nothing of territory still under Russian control in other parts of the country — in Mariupol, Russian troops are reported to have brought in portable crematoria to cover their tracks.

We should want more solid confirmation of all this, given the fog of war and the incentive Ukrainians naturally feel to generate as much international outrage in their behalf as possible. But even if only a fraction of it is true, it’d be horrifying enough, and certainly none of it is out of character for Putin’s Russia. 

There’s talk of war-crime trials for everyone from Vladimir Putin on down, but this is a fantasy — none of them are going to show up for any such proceedings. The best thing that Western democracies can do, besides continuing to catalog evidence of these acts to create a record if nothing else, is to support the Ukrainian military’s ongoing counteroffensives to retake Russian-held territory.

Bucha has catalyzed further Western actions that are welcome, but peripheral to the main event.

Since late last week, several European countries have announced that they would expel Russian spies stationed at Moscow’s embassies in their capitals — a coordinated push that will make it more difficult for Russia to engage in espionage, harassment, and assassination within the EU.

Brussels has also started to coalesce around a fifth sanctions package, this one likely to bar purchases of Russian coal and block certain Russian banks from doing business with European entities. It will also prevent Russian trucks and ships from entering the European Union.

And the Biden administration, in addition to advancing its own sanctions on banks and Russian officials, announced that it would seek a U.N. vote to block Russia from the organization’s Human Rights Council — an effort that succeeded Thursday morning.

While these measures are fine as far as they go, they don’t do anything to advance the Ukrainians’ cause where it matters most.

By all accounts, the Russian military is reconstituting in Ukraine’s east for a new campaign focusing on the areas near the Donbas. Moscow’s central objective during that push, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday, will be to take all of the Donbas and create a land bridge with Crimea.

What Kyiv really needs is what it has for weeks requested from the West: anti-ship missiles, tanks, and surface-to-air missile systems that the Ukrainians can use to put Moscow on the back foot.

Thus far, the U.S. and its allies have largely balked at sending those weapons to Ukraine, with the White House saying that they could be seen by the Kremlin as “offensive” in nature. But Ukraine isn’t planning to march to Moscow; its only goal is to defend its sovereign territory, an inherently defensive action.

And the Ukrainians have already shown that such weapons would be used to great effect. Even with what they have now, they managed to stop the Russian advance on Kyiv in a military achievement that will long be studied and will presumably be remembered in Ukrainian history forever.

We should want the Ukrainians to resist the Russian offensive in the south and east, and push back Putin’s force as far as possible. Ideally, Putin will be completely defeated, but it’s more likely the war will end with some diplomatic settlement that will be painful to both sides — the more territory the Ukrainians can hold and win back, though, the better that settlement is likely to be for them. They deserve all the materiel we can reasonably get them, and the sooner the better.

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