The Butcher of Bucha

“Russia is worse than ISIS. Full stop.”

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister

This past weekend we witnessed two significant events surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Russians withdrew from the towns and suburbs around the capital Kyiv, and the resulting discoveries were horrendous. Besides the utter destruction of homes and buildings, it was clear to the most impartial observers that the Russians had conducted untold atrocities on the civilian population including murder, rape and looting. To date, over four hundred civilian Ukrainians are known to have been murdered in one town alone. Some were buried in mass graves, some were left where they were shot in the street. Dozens were shot execution style with their hands tied behind their backs. The pictures are horrifying. The stories from the survivors are worse. The town of Bucha was the first to uncover the breadth of the atrocities but it will not be the last. Many observers believe that similar war crimes are being committed in other occupied cities and towns. The only difference so far is that those areas have yet to be freed of Russian forces, their accomplices from Chechnya and the mercenaries sent to bail out the Russian military.

These two developments together may mark a turning point in Putin’s War. Analysts believe that the Russians are in the process of concentrating their remaining forces in eastern Ukraine to dominate the separatist areas of Luhansk and Donetsk. This is why the battle for Kharkiv is so essential. Additionally, they will concentrate on completing a Russian land bridge from Crimea to Russia along the coast of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. This is the importance of the battle for Mariupol and efforts by the Russians to capture Odessa. So far, the Russians have failed to achieve all of their strategic and operational goals. The Ukrainian resistance is unbelievable and is to be commended. Unfortunately, the war is not over and time is on the Russian’s side. At the current rate, the Ukrainians cannot hold out for ever, perhaps only a few more months. Meantime, the loss of Ukrainian lives, military and civilian, continues during heavy fighting and deliberate and random Russian attacks on cities and civilians. Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking the approach that if he cannot have Ukraine, then he will make sure that there is nothing left for the Ukrainians that survive his brutal attacks.

This should come as no surprise to anyone that studies eastern European history. It is certainly no surprise to the Ukrainians. For a hundred years or more, the Russian way of fighting includes destroying civilian infrastructure and killing as many civilians as possible. While leading the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and others in war and in peace. Mr. Putin has used scorched earth tactics in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere. It is what they do. It is what they are doing now. Make no mistake, the war crimes ongoing in Ukraine are not the result of poorly trained, undisciplined individual units going berserk. This is a strategy. It is meant to terrorize the civilian population into giving up. Even as the Russians deny their atrocities and call it “fake news” they are glad it is publicized. It gets the message out to those watching that the terror is real and it is personal. It is an integral element of their conduct of war and crucial to the PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) they are conducting to demoralize the Ukrainian population.

Now is the time for NATO to act with ever greater urgency. The Russians are temporarily disorganized, demoralized and lacking in unit cohesion, supplies and the essentials of war. That will not last forever. While they are regrouping in Russia and Belarus, the NATO allies and other supporters should be pouring weapons and materiel into Ukraine to give them the chance to go on the offensive and push the Russians back. Apparently, there is a debate among the allies as to supplying “defensive” arms to Ukraine as opposed to “offensive” arms. It is past time to forget about such niceties. For the Ukrainians, this is a fight to the finish. For the rest of the world, this is a fight for freedom and democracy. Ukraine is on the front lines. What happens there will have great geo-political consequences for the West and much of the rest of the world. Give them what they need. They are doing an incredible job defending themselves. They are not asking for NATO troops or forces from anywhere else — only the weapons they need to fight the Russian war machine. As important in warfare as weapons is the will to fight. The Ukrainians have proved their determination to fight for every inch of their nation. But they don’t have the weapons. Most military men and women will tell you that when the shooting starts, they don’t know or care whether the bullets and shells coming at them are from “defensive” or “offensive” weapons. They just know that they are getting shot at. Of course, let’s not forget that the Russians went on the offensive to start the war and continue to be offensive in their operations and actions in every sense of the word.

Primarily, the U.S. is under pressure to supply more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine. Without going into a litany of particular weapon systems, U.S. sophisticated weapons are not of much use at this point because the Ukrainian Armed Forces do not have the training to use them. The U.S. should continue to supply massive amounts of effective, but less sophisticated weapons such as MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems such as Stinger missiles) and NLAWS (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon Systems such as British and Swedish shoulder fired systems or the larger U.S. Javelin). Such weapons are easy to learn to use in a short period of time and are quite effective in the right circumstances. Just ask the Russian armored columns.

More sophisticated weapons such as mid or high-altitude air defense systems, or coastal missile systems, or tanks or airplanes should come from our NATO allies that were formerly part of the USSR or Warsaw Pact. These Soviet era weapons are of the same types that Ukraine primarily has in their military so there is no ramp up in training. They can be used immediately. Poland in particular could be quite effective in this way.

As much as can be provided now, not a month from now or later, would be most effective in saving Ukrainian lives and in giving the Ukrainian military the opportunity to take advantage of the Russian disarray. Let’s face it. The Ukrainians are not going to march to Moscow. They will not retake Crimea through force. Whether “offensive” or “defensive” they need the equipment now to save lives and to push Russia to meaningful negotiations.

At the same time NATO needs to decide which “red lines” must be drawn. War crimes are taking place daily. Russia must be held responsible. It is too far-fetched to believe that Mr. Putin will ever stand trial in person for his war crimes. However, significant destruction of his conventional military power is not beyond the realm of possibility if he continues to pursue the war in Ukraine. They have been proved to be ill-equipped, poorly trained, lacking in leadership and short on logistic support. But there is still the preponderance of force on their side both in manpower and in numbers of weapons. They can still over-run Ukraine if they go all in, which it seems Mr. Putin is willing to do. He is not personally suffering from sanctions or the war. As I mentioned above, the Russian mentality is to crush everything in their path. If that means losing thousands (or in World War II, millions) of their own troops, so be it. They are ruthless in every way, including the treatment of their own fighting forces. To date, no number of casualties is too high.

The Butcher of Bucha will not stop the atrocities. We need to make them pay the highest price we can.



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