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US and Europe must stop tolerating crimes against humanity in Ukraine

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
Police carry a dead body of one of six civilians – three women, one teenage girl and two men who were found in Bucha, close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2022. Even more grisly evidence emerged of civilian massacres in areas that Russian forces recently left.

During four days on the ground in Ukraine recently, I witnessed firsthand the destruction and horror of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its civilian population, and I conducted dozens of interviews with traumatized internally displaced persons and public officials.

I am not a hawk by any means, and my career has often been centered on promoting civil society and peaceful democracies, most recently as Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau of Europe and Eurasia, but after my recent trip to Ukraine, I have been compelled to conclude that the U.S. and Europe must intervene directly to stop the “crimes against humanity” that are daily being committed against the Ukrainian people.  

Since the Holocaust, the world has often claimed as its mantra “never again.” Never again would the world stand aside when crimes against humanity are committed. And yet, for over six weeks, the world has watched in real time the brutality of Russia’s unprovoked and increasingly violent assault on Ukraine and its people. “Never again” seems increasingly to be an empty phrase. Seizing an oligarch’s yacht is relatively easy, but it simply will not protect a hospital or train station in the way that a “no fly” zone would, and the latter requires unmistakable risks. “Never again” costs something.

Sanctions and military support to Ukrainian forces, though important, have failed to stop Russia’s increasingly brutal crimes against humanity. In effect, Putin has employed nuclear blackmail as a way to ensure himself a free hand to do as he wills in Ukraine. The blackmail must end. The point is not to provoke a nuclear war or to declare war on Russia, but rather to insist unequivocally that the war crimes stop — or the military forces that commit them will be targeted for destruction.

Our struggle is not against Russia or the Russian people but against those forces that fire on civilian targets and humanitarian assistance corridors within Ukraine.

Putin has made the absurd claim that his goal is to “de-Nazify” Ukraine — with its Jewish president — but it has been Putin and his thugs, disguised as soldiers, who have played the role of neo-Nazis in this senseless war.

My dad was a WW II veteran, and he has told me a bit about the trauma of war, and now I have an idea what it must have been like. Waking up to the sound of air raid sirens is a surreal experience. Seeing troops on every street, bridge, power plant or major infrastructure facility is scary. The Ukrainian armed forces were very supportive of my interest to learn more. Some had never met an American, but they shared their hardships and personal stories.  I met teachers cooking food, architects and engineers making beds, and politicians working around the clock and sleeping in their offices on lawn chairs. All are working together — regardless of their beliefs or background — to grapple with the needs of their country and fellow citizens. 

From Uzhhorod to Mukachevo and from Chernivtsi to Kamianets-Podilsky, every city, town and village I visited told the same stories of people fleeing the horror, bloodshed and violence. “We’re being exterminated!” I heard time and again. “We need your help — and we’re not asking for soldiers to come here from the United States.” Not once did I hear anyone ask for what we call “boots on the ground.”

Ukrainians have plenty of fighting spirit; they just lack the tools, equipment and supplies to win.

They are not asking for us to sacrifice our sons and daughters, they are simply asking us to close the skies — and to continue supplying them with weapons and humanitarian aid.

They are clearly outnumbered, but they have unity and courage. 

Ironically, Putin’s aggression has powerfully united Ukraine. Virtually everyone I talked with was involved with the war effort in some way. Even displaced people were volunteering to make camouflage nets and do whatever work is needed. President Volodymyr Zelensky and former President Petro Poroshenko — bitter political rivals — are now working together to defeat a common enemy.

The people of Ukraine are literally staring down the barrel of a gun, yet they remain defiant.

Ukraine is a shining beacon of democracy for the world. It deserves to continue to exist. And if Ukraine is victorious, it will show the world that authoritarians will lose when confronted with a freedom-loving people and global allies who refuse to stand aside when crimes against humanity are committed.

It’s time to say, “never again” — and mean it.

Brock Bierman is a visiting fellow for Democracy Initiatives at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Prior to that, he served as the assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia.

Tags countering Putin countering Russia Crimes against humanity Democracy Genocide military aid to Ukraine Never Again No-fly zone Petro Poroshenko Russian aggression Russian war crimes Ukraine aid Ukrainian air space Ukrainian independence Ukrainian military Ukrainian resistance Ukrainian victory Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky War crimes during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

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