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To stop Putin’s atrocities and lead to peace in Ukraine, we need sustained outrage and action

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Ukrainian Lubov Oleinikova, 83, cries inside her building damaged during a Russian attack in Kherson, southern Ukraine, on Nov. 25, 2022. A barrage of missiles struck the recently liberated city in a marked escalation of attacks since Russia withdrew two weeks ago following an eight-month occupation.

It seems each day brings a new report of another Russian atrocity in Ukraine. One day, a mass grave and evidence of war crimes are found after Russian forces are driven from a Ukrainian town; another day, a Russian missile strikes a maternity hospital killing a two-day old child and wounding its mother. After nine months of this, there is a danger of atrocity fatigue setting in for those outside Ukraine, but stopping Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression requires sustaining global outrage about Putin’s atrocities and action in support of Ukraine.

Every aspect of Putin’s effort to conquer Ukraine and incorporate it into his fantasy Russian empire has been brutal and criminal, more Medieval than 21st Century. Some of this stems from what became apparent within days of Russia’s invasion: Putin’s autocratic and corrupt leadership has produced a Potemkin village of a military. The Russian army looks good in Red Square, but is neither led, equipped, nor trained to deal with a competent foe fighting for and on its homeland.  

Some incidents of Russia’s criminal brutality may simply be armed young men acting badly in situations for which they were not prepared, but the ongoing campaign of missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s civil infrastructure makes clear that in Putin’s Russia, brutality and criminality are state policy and begin at the top. 

Putin’s military cannot beat the Ukrainian military, so in acts of blatant cowardice it attacks hospitals, power stations, apartment blocks, and water treatment plants — and it murders two-day old babies in maternity hospitals. 

Cowardice in Russia also starts at the top. Putin is afraid. His hard line supporters are furious at Russian military retreats in Ukraine and demand more be done to turn the tide of battle. But the Russian public is in no mood for more forced conscription of its sons for a losing cause, and the business community and larger economy are beginning to feel the bite of international sanctions — as is Russia’s military supply chain.

So, with winter having arrived in Ukraine, Putin hopes to salvage his position by waging war on civilian targets to force Ukraine’s people to choose between staying or becoming refugees in countries that can provide them heat, light, water and food.

Putin’s February invasion of Ukraine was met with outrage, in Ukraine and internationally. That outrage produced resistance and action. But the war has dragged on for nine months, and Putin’s ongoing atrocities are beginning to seem routine.

Outrage can be hard to sustain, particularly for those comfortably away from the threat of Russian missiles to the basics of modern life. Yet surely few things could be more deserving of outrage. 

It is vital to the outcome in Ukraine — and for global stability more generally — that governments, civil society, and business communities around the globe express their outrage through stepped-up action that is as relentless as Putin’s missile attacks on the people of Ukraine.

For governments, that means continuing to supply Ukraine with the military support needed to signal those around Putin and the Russian people that the costs of continued fighting will be high and produce nothing but long-term problems for Russia. Enhanced sanctions would reinforce the military support, particularly if they applied more widely to the Russian industrial and commercial sectors, which are increasingly being coerced into the Russian military supply chain. There are reports that Russian businesses are seeking to hide their military supply roles because they understand the reputational consequences internationally. Those links need to be highlighted publicly and sanctioned.

The U.S. and the EU should complement their support for Ukraine with stepped up diplomacy. The initial thrust should be on expanding the number of countries opposing Russia’s war on Ukraine, deepening Russia’s international isolation. In addition, the U.S. and the EU need to develop a diplomatic strategy for a satisfactory conclusion to this war, which likely will end with some form of a negotiated agreement. In consultation with Ukraine, this diplomacy would seek to shape a process leading to an agreement with mechanisms that would support regional stability and allow — over time — for confidence building between Ukraine and Russia.

Finally, governments holding frozen Russian Central Bank reserves, such as the U.S., should use at least half of those reserves this winter to pay for the repair of Ukraine’s infrastructure and housing damaged or destroyed by Russian attacks.

The global business community, particularly in the U.S., the EU, Japan, and Korea can demonstrate outrage at Russia’s barbarism in Ukraine by severing their remaining ties with the Russian commercial and industrial sectors. A number of multinational firms have left Russia, but many still remain. None should be left by the end of February.

Civil society groups have an important role in sustaining international outrage over Putin’s atrocities because they can help mobilize public opinion within their countries and across borders. Many such groups from around the world are already helping Ukraine with humanitarian and other assistance, but they should develop a deliberate strategy, coordinated within and across borders, to keep Putin’s atrocities in the spotlight and help build popular support for continued government action to support Ukraine with military, humanitarian, and economic assistance. 

And in countries that are still maintaining a neutral position on this conflict, such as India and Israel, civil society groups should be raising the pressure on their publics and governments to get off the fence and support Ukraine with UN votes and humanitarian assistance, at least. 

While marked by incompetence, cowardice, and criminal brutality, Putin’s campaign against Ukraine and its people has been relentless. Those supporting Ukraine must be just as relentless.

Sustained outrage over Putin’s war crimes and sustained military and economic support for Ukraine are the only path to a settlement of this war that leads to regional stability and long-term peace.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Tags Civilian casualties civilian targets military aid to Ukraine Outrage Putin's war crimes Russian aggression Russian irredentism Russian military Russian sanctions Russian war crimes Russian war in Ukraine Ukrainian victory Vladimir Putin War crimes during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine winter
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