Never Again!

In what should be more than a war of words, the term “genocide” is being tossed around in the wake of the fighting during Putin’s War. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the term prior to his invasion of Ukraine, claiming that the Ukrainians were committing genocide against the Russian speaking population of Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine. Indeed, it is part of his disinformation campaign to justify his invasion and he connects it to his declaration that the Ukrainian government is run by “Nazis.” There is a long history of this sort of talk from Mr. Putin. In short, the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany in World War II is glorified in Russian history beyond any level that we in the United States may understand. He is trying to build support for his war by tying it to the success of the Soviet army against the Nazis. Forgotten in that telling, of course, is that in 1939 the Soviet Union was allied with Germany via a non-aggression pact and they divided Poland between them. Also conveniently forgotten is that in April and May of 1940 the Soviets executed about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in the Katyn forest.

In 2022 we face a difficult situation. President Joe Biden called Mr. Putin a “war criminal” for the atrocities taking place in Ukrainian areas occupied or under siege by Russian troops. At last count, Ukrainian government prosecutors were investigating about 5,800 cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with more uncovered everyday. These are facts which, unfortunately, many of us can see for ourselves each night on the national news. Last week Mr. Biden took it a step further during an event in Iowa by saying that Mr. Putin is “a dictator that commits genocide.” Later, he doubled down on his statement saying, “Yes. I called it genocide. It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian.” Which has a basis in fact, as Mr. Putin repeatedly claims that Ukraine should cease to exist as a sovereign nation. He believes it should be Russian with only Russian speakers living there.

War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are all legal terms under international law. Each is the result of ever more horrifying actions of one people against others. Genocide, however, has usually been reserved for the most heinous of crimes and gives another level of importance to the events in Ukraine. As if they were not already of utmost importance. The moral stakes are as high as they can be.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (often called the Genocide Convention) codified the United Nations resolution of 1946 that made genocide a crime under international law. In Article II, the Convention document defines genocide as meaning “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

I will leave it to the international law experts to define what “in whole or in part” means, but it would seem that actions by one nation attempting to eliminate another does not have to succeed in entirely wiping them out. Merely trying to do so is a crime. In fact, the Convention states that conspiracy or incitement to commit genocide is itself a crime. Certainly it is easy from what we know in open source reporting that the Russians have violated at least four of the five genocidal actions under the Convention.

Sadly, whether brought up on war crime charges or for genocide, it is unlikely that Mr. Putin or any of those in his inner circle or those carrying out his orders will be brought to trial. Under the Convention the investigation and trial of such crimes are to be undertaken by the nation in which they occurred or in international court.

The real issue here is a moral one. It raises new questions about how NATO should support Ukraine and how this conflict will end. If we in the West truly believe in the slogan “Never Again!” — meaning we will never again sit by and watch the slaughter of thousands or millions of our fellow human beings as occurred in the Nazi death camps — then now is the time to step up. This is a major test of the world order and a test that will have consequences for decades to come. Russians are deliberately torturing, killing, beheading, raping, and desecrating civilians in Ukraine. I’ll repeat that. Deliberately. Even though I cannot understand how human beings can be so cruel to others — and yes, I know my history from around the world including here in the U.S. — it is none-the-less happening. It is an instrument of planned terror. It also provides a look into the psyche of the average Russian. Only by dehumanizing an opponent — thinking of them as “scum” (Putin’s word) and other than human — can people be so cruel.

These actions also impact how the war will end. How can Ukraine reach a negotiated settlement with Russia if the Russians are attempting to wipe out the very meaning of what it means to be Ukrainian? How can the West broker a settlement with a country accused of genocide? Is anything short of a complete defeat of Russia rewarding their genocidal policy? Does giving up Ukrainian territory — rewarding Russia for committing genocide — even make sense? Such questions have a significant impact on the course of the war, who gets involved, and its outcome.

My thoughts on NATO and with that, U.S. support to Ukraine have evolved over the course of the last few weeks. I think we need to go all in. Not with troops in Ukraine — at least not yet — but with every offensive and defensive weapon we can reasonably give to Ukraine. I am sure that we are providing valuable intelligence data to the Ukrainians (surprise Russian flagship Moskva!) to help them with their targeting but we should take that a step further to allow them to attack into Russian territory to hit supply, fuel and military targets. Continue to put our best military minds to work with imaginative, but deniable, actions that hinder the Russian military. Sanctions are the public face of such efforts — and they are beginning to work — but there is much more to do. Our covert capabilities are excellent. There is more to do without directly fighting the Russians.

The moral imperative is there now. I have come to understand what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is saying about how this is a fight for the future of western democracies. It may sound like hyperbole, or over-dramatization on their part, but as we see the ruthless brutality of the Russians such statements take on more meaning. Importantly, remember why Mr. Putin started this war. Once the propaganda is removed it is for one major reason. He saw a direct challenge to his totalitarian regime. If Ukraine — where many Russians have family members as do Ukrainians in Russia — becomes a full fledged western democracy sitting fully on his border, he will soon have internal domestic problems as more and more Russians clamor for a similar assimilation into Europe. As it is, many of his troops are seeing a way of life that they could not imagine. In addition to the subjugation of a nation, there is a reason Russian troops are carrying away washing machines, laptops, televisions and other consumer goods. They cannot get them in many parts of Russia and certainly, many average Russians cannot afford them.

Mr. Putin is desperate to maintain his way of life and to rule Russia with an iron fist. That is why Ukraine is such a threat. He must destroy it in order to show that the western democracies of NATO cannot succeed in protecting it, therefore no nation should think that democracy is a way of governing that succeeds. How far he is willing to go in this scorched earth policy we can only guess. This is the first time in my experience that sober, knowledgeable people are talking about the use of nuclear weapons. Many surmise that Mr. Putin thinks such weapons are a viable option if needed to succeed in Ukraine. That should give all of us pause and emphasize once again how serious this war is and how much more serious it can become.

We get easily distracted by such things as “The Slap” at the Academy Awards show, or whether we now have to wear masks on airplanes. Life goes on, yes, but the stakes are higher in Ukraine than many believe. Five million people to date have left Ukraine for other countries. This in its self is a humanitarian crisis. It is also part of the Russian plan to destabilize western Europe by disrupting the ability of democratic governments to care for their own people and the refugees.

Genocide is underway. There is a massive humanitarian crisis underway. Terror is raining down on the civilians in many Ukrainian cities, killing tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Russia is reportedly deporting women and children from occupied areas to camps in Russia. More atrocities will be uncovered. Mr. Putin is trying to destroy the ideals of western democracy. The list will grow longer.

If we mean “Never Again!” we need to act on it.


Checking In On Syria

When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives.  I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly.  As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be.  Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.”  I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.

As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million).  In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces.  Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors.  It was horrific.  Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world.  What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing.  After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”

In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda.  By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.  Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people.  This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)

Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war.  Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.

After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily.  We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens.  If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved.  There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.

Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country.  After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule.  At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.

To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests.  In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake.  The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States).  As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat.  Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States.  Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security.  The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests.  Yet, we are doing very little to end it.  Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere.  Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.

So the question is what should the United States do about this situation?  To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.”  The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily.  At.  All.  (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.)  For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.

I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives.  Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far.  Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west.  Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups.  Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance .  However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups.  They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective.  The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States.  We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership.  We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.

To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state.  Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going.  Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state.  While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us.  In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.

They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events.  With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.

Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult.  A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so.  Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians.  During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely.  The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them.  Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.

There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me.  Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about.  I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.

I do know this.  Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert.  It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware.  It is now a killing field.  Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.