As we approach the two weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s tactics are changing. The Russian leader expected to quickly defeat the Ukrainian army, capture its main cities, behead the country’s leaders and install a puppet government. Instead, Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties and now face the prospect of a grueling war against an entire nation of over 40 million Ukrainians.
In light of these setbacks, Russia has shifted to terrorist tactics and is increasingly focusing on missile strikes, aerial bombardments and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets. Civilian casualties are now increasing at an alarming rate, with major cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol in ruins.
Many Ukrainians trapped in the country’s besieged cities no longer have access to water, electricity or heat. Bodies lie in the streets and the overwhelmed emergency services are near breaking point. An unprecedented humanitarian crisis in 21st century Europe is unfolding before the eyes of the whole world.
Reducing entire cities to rubble doesn’t seem to bother Vladimir Putin or Russian commanders. His army has already done this, destroying the Chechen capital Grozny and Aleppo in Syria. Many observers are shocked to see these tactics applied in the heart of Europe, but there really is no reason to be surprised. The war crimes we are currently witnessing in Ukraine are in many ways the calling card of the Russian military during Putin’s time.
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So far, the Western response to Putin’s invasion has proven insufficient to contain Russia. The penalties imposed since the start of the war were surprisingly severe, but they stopped long before the most extreme options available. The UK has been reluctant to match its rhetoric with tough measures against Russian oligarchs, for example, while Germany has blocked efforts to impose potentially game-changing sanctions on Russian energy exports.
These half measures have sent a dangerous message to the Kremlin that the West remains reluctant to engage in full-scale economic warfare. The results of this madness can be seen in the escalating bombardment of Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine has long called on the West to engage with Russia from a position of strength, while warning of the threat to international security posed by Putin’s regime. Alarm bells first rang in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. It is now painfully clear that the weak Western response to this brief war was a grave mistake.
In the spring of 2014, the democratic world was equally reckless in its reaction to Russia’s capture of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Western leaders initially subjected Moscow to relatively modest economic sanctions and only agreed to tighten restrictions when Russia shot down an airliner over the eastern Ukraine combat zone in July 2014.
While European leaders condemned Putin’s 2014 attack on Ukraine, they did not hesitate to forge stronger economic ties with Russia. This hypocritical stance was epitomized by Germany’s decision to partner with Russia on the construction of a major new gas pipeline, which was announced in 2015 despite Russia’s refusal to end the occupation of Crimea and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. German politicians would continue to defend their collaboration with the Kremlin until Putin’s recent invasion finally forced Berlin to call off the pipeline.
This weakness is all the more inexcusable since Putin has never hidden his intention to subjugate Ukraine. For years he publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and declared that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people”. Indeed, Putin’s current military campaign against Ukraine is a logical sequel to his earlier statements and the inevitable consequence of Western timidity.
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Ukrainians now find themselves forced to fight for the survival of their state while upholding the very principles that the world’s democracies claim to uphold.
Even in this climate of crisis, appeasement efforts continue. While the US, UK, Canada and a host of European countries have provided much-needed weapons to aid the Ukrainian cause, Western leaders have also been quick to rule out direct military intervention and have resisted growing calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. .
We are now fast approaching a moment of truth for the entire democratic world. Putin has made clear his intention to bomb and terrorize Ukraine into submission. Unable to defeat the Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, he chose to target the civilian population. If the West sits idly by and lets this happen, other countries will surely suffer the same fate as Ukraine.
The deliberate bombing of cities and the targeting of civilians is a war crime. The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, recently called Russia to account. “The crimes currently committed against Ukraine by Russia are a disgrace to human society. Those responsible should be held accountable for assault, crimes against humanity and outright murder,” Ferencz said in a social media post. “The sooner they start dragging criminals to court, the happier we will be.”
When will the democracies of the world finally show their determination to hold Russia accountable for its crimes?
Bohdan Klid is Director of Research at the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium at the University of Alberta (Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies).
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
the Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.