Zelensky is in a Hurry; Justice Isn’t

Efforts to change Russia’s behavior during the Ukraine crisis have failed. Rounds and rounds of harsher and harsher sanctions, investigations into war crimes, crimes against humanity and an act of aggression have not stopped the Russians who are continuing their assault on Ukraine. On the diplomatic front, excluding and suspending Russia from multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council and recalling Russian ambassadors from different countries have had no effect.

Why not?

The above actions are punitive. They hold Russia accountable for what they are doing and have done. But the punitive measures have not changed behavior, as if sending a child to bed without supper will change her behavior the next time at the table. “How many times have I told you to…?” is a repeated refrain from frustrated parents who ratchet up the punishment with little results.

The war began on February 24, over six weeks ago. Via the media, we see continued bombings of civilians, including those waiting in the Kramatorsk railroad station as well as other horrific human rights abuses.

Punishments or threats of punishments have not had an impact on Vladimir Putin. They have not affected real time events. There is no sign of troop withdrawal, only redeployment. There is no sign of progress in the negotiations. Our horror at the pictures of the dead lying in the streets of Bucha and Kramatorsk, videos of bombed out civilian targets, the uproar over the millions of Ukrainian displaced have had no effect on Moscow’s war plans.

The challenge to end the war is in the relation between the short and long term. It is a temporal problem. At his April 5 video address to the United Nations Security Council, Ukrainian President Zelensky pleaded for both the short term as well as the medium and long term.

For the short term, he said: “I am addressing you on behalf of the people who honor the memory of the deceased everyday.” He emphasized by repeating “Everyday, in the morning. The memory of killed civilians.” This just four days after the April 1 video confirming the March 19 images of dead bodies strewn in the streets of Bucha.

Zelensky preceded these remarks by noting: “Yesterday I returned from the city of Bucha, recently liberated from the troops of the Russian Federation.” He then graphically described how innocent civilians had been tortured and killed, comparing the Russian soldiers to ISIS terrorists.

Zelensky interspersed his vivid descriptions of what Ukrainians are suffering with challenges to his audience at the United Nations. “So where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee? There is no security. Although there is a Security Council, as if nothing happened.”

Further he asked: “So where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee?”

Zelensky attacked Russia at United Nations headquarters for violating the first article of the UN Charter, of committing “the most heinous crimes of all times since the end of World War II…”

His emotional presentation allowed him to ignore the genocide in Rwanda, the Chinese treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the proven war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, the treatment of Rohingyas by the government of Myanmar.

Carried away by the moment, Zelensky switched to the future as a form of threat to his audience. “If this [war] continues, the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions. Then, the UN can simply be dissolved.”

So, if the members of the Security Council and backers of multilateral understand the medium- and long-term implications of Russia’s actions, “The aggressor must be forced to peace immediately.”

How to do this? “Immediately bring the Russian military and those who gave them orders to justice for war crimes in Ukraine. Everyone who gave criminal orders and fulfilled them by killing people will face a tribunal similar to the Nuremberg trials,” he proposed.

His final call is for a transformation of the world security system. And that’s where he lost me, if not the audience. While the situation in Ukraine is dire, and calls for immediate action, his call for reforming the world security system just like his call for Nuremberg like trials confuse the immediate with the future. The Nuremberg trials happened well after the end of World War II and were under the auspices of the victors.

Mixing the present with the future is similar to mixing is and ought. Ukraine is suffering. Civilians are dying; buildings, if not cities are being destroyed; millions are displaced. That should be the main focus of all interested in restoring peace.

Questions of justice, war crimes trials, holding those responsible accountable are in the future. Threats, sanctions, suspensions have not worked. At least not up until now. Vladimir Putin seems incapable of reacting to outside pressure.

Pictures of the horrors are now, in real time. The solutions should also be in real time.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.