War Crimes Will Only Make Things Worse for Russia as Ukrainians Prepare for a Fight to the Bitter End

Emergency servicemen carry a dead body found under rubble in Malyn city, Zhytomyr Oblast, after a Russian airstrike. Photograph Source: State Emergency Service of Ukraine – https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=329249785909584&set=pcb.329249925909570 – CC BY 4.0

As the bodies of Ukrainian civilians murdered by Russian soldiers are discovered in the streets and cellars of towns around Kyiv, the chances plummet of a compromise peace in the Ukrainian war. The likelihood of this happening was never high, but the slaughter will persuade many Ukrainians that they have no choice but to fight to a finish or at least until Russia troops are forced out of the country.

Massacres are the all-important staging posts of history – their influence often greater than that of famous battles – because they send a message to whole communities that their existence is threatened by a common enemy. If the aim of a mass killing is to intimidate a whole population, then experience from Amritsar to My-Lai shows that it usually has precisely the opposite effect. The death of 410 civilians at the hands of the Russian army in the town of Bucha outside Kyiv may well join the grisly list of massacres that permanently shape relations between nations.

Why did the Russian army carry out these crimes? They are much against the interests of the Kremlin, which five weeks ago had persuaded itself that part of the Ukrainian population would welcome Russian intervention with open arms. The atrocities were the more-or-less inevitable outcome of this ill-conceived invasion plan, rooted in wishful thinking and carried out by ill-disciplined and ill-trained troops. Poor-quality soldiers like this facing a hostile population are particularly dangerous in my experience, because they quickly come to believe that they are being spied on, sniped at and generally betrayed by the local population.

An example of this is reported from Motyzhyn outside Kyiv where the head of the village, her husband and son were killed and buried in a shallow grave in the sand by Russian forces. “There had been Russian occupiers here,” said a Ukrainian interior ministry official who showed reporters the bodies. “They tortured and murdered the whole family of the village head. The occupiers suspected they were collaborating with our military, giving us locations of where to target our artillery.”

This is typical of troops who come under fire and are in a high state of paranoia as they look for somebody to blame. But, though the decision to execute an innocent villager is made on the spot by some frightened 20-year-old, this does not absolve the generals and politicians who have a fair idea of what is going on even if they have not given direct orders for the killings. They may privately imagine that “a whiff of grapeshot” will suppress local opposition, blind to the fact that it promotes it and legitimises it.

Massacres everywhere have common features, but those carried out by Russian troops in north Ukraine are typified by feckless violence by troops, frequently drunk going by the number of discarded vodka and whiskey bottles around their positions, who see all civilians as hostile and fair game, even when they are obviously families in flight.

Paradoxically, the corpses of the dead are only being found now because Russian negotiators announced last week during peace talks with a Ukrainian delegation in Istanbul that it was pulling back its forces around Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north of the country as a gesture of goodwill. It is a measure of the disconnected nature of the Russian war effort that no attempt was made to remove evidence of atrocities before the retreat took place, aside from a few botched attempts to burn bodies.

Images of these ill-concealed murders are horrifying the world, but diverting attention from an undoubted Russian failure in north Ukraine. A few Russian troops were said to be still present on Monday around Chernihiv, which is close to the Belarus border, but they have gone from around Kyiv. These forces are likely to be moved to reinforce Russian positions in the Donbas in south-east Ukraine but are reported to have suffered heavy casualties and loss of equipment so they will need to refit and reorganise.

The Russian retreat and the revelations about atrocities and possible war crimes will impact the way other nations view the war, tipping the balance towards those who want to see Russia defeated in Ukraine, and against those who want a compromise peace with President Putin, allowing him to say that he achieved something by his war. Meanwhile, those who argue for a total ban on the import of Russian oil and gas into Europe will be strengthened and will have greater popular support.

Such a furious reaction to the latest butchery may be understandable, but it will not necessarily be good for the 44 million Ukrainians. Monstrous though the killings are, the war could get a lot worse yet if Russia engages in so-called “meat-grinder” tactics in south-east Ukraine, pounding cities into submission or destruction. Russia may have done badly on the battlefield so far, but it is by no means defeated. It has tactics it has not used – such as destroying the Ukrainian electricity grid as the US did in Iraq 1991. It has vast reserves of manpower it could still mobilise. If Putin used poison gas, Ukraine refugees fleeing to the rest of the Europe would be numbered in the tens of millions.

Most important, there is no sign of Putin changing his mind about the war or being influenced by who would like to change it. Opposition to his invasion in Russia has ebbed since the period immediately after it had taken place because of wall-to-wall propaganda in state-controlled media, repression of open dissent – and a sense among Russians that they are all bring targeted because they are Russians, and not just because of Ukraine.

Oligarchs who once lived partly in the West have been forced back to Russia, making them more dependent than previously on the Kremlin. Prolonged economic sanctions and consequent unemployment might eventually cause discontent, but Russia is self-reliant in oil, gas and foodstuffs.

The only way to stop atrocities in Ukraine is to end a war which is unlikely to produce a clear winner. But in the wake of the latest killings this looks less and less likely. Russia, Ukraine and its backers all have reasons to end the war, but perhaps even stronger motives for fighting even harder.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).