Only last week there was a more optimistic tone in reports coming out of Ukraine. Five weeks after Vladimir Putin had sent his troops across the border expecting a relatively swift military victory, it appeared that Ukraine’s stout defence was beginning to turn the tide and that Russian troops were being pushed back out of areas they had previously occupied. Towns such as Bucha on the north-west fringe of Kyiv might soon be liberated as Russia changed its focus to the Donbas.
Well, as we know, Ukrainian troops entered Bucha at the weekend. What had been a thriving city of 36,000 before the Russians arrived on March 12 had been destroyed. But more distressing were the reports of hundreds of dead bodies, some with their hands tied behind their backs and showing signs of torture. These distressing discoveries included women who appeared to have been raped and their bodies burned.
It should go without saying that these terrible discoveries have shocked the world. US president Joe Biden has called for Vladimir Putin to face a war crimes trial and there are a growing number of calls for much tougher sanctions in a bid to turn Russians against their president. As Anastasiia Kudlenko, an expert in security in eastern Europe, writes, tough sanctions may come at a harsh cost to western countries that impose them, but the Ukrainians are paying a far heavier cost in blood and tears day after day.
I’m being very careful to write that these atrocities are “reported” and they “appear to show” war crimes. We won’t know properly until forensics experts have a chance to do their job and work out in what circumstances these people died. It’s grim but important work. Jamie Pringle and Nicholas Marquez-Grant are both forensic scientists and they discuss how a massacre scene like the one in Bucha might be investigated.
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Russia has denied any wrongdoing, of course, and is accusing the Ukrainians of faking these atrocities. But there is a long history of covering up wartime atrocities. It took 50 years for the Soviet Union to come clean about the massacre at Kartyn Forest in 1940, where 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered and buried in mass graves. As historian Tomas Sniegon recounts, Russia was able to pin the crime on Nazi Germany and it took until 1990 for Mikhail Gorbachev, in the spirit of glasnost, to finally admit it had been a Russian atrocity all along.
The Russian propaganda machine has also denied targeting hospitals and other healthcare facilities in their bombardment of Ukraine’s cities. But the World Health Organization has identified at least 82 healthcare facilities in Ukraine that have been hit by Russian missiles or shells. And, as Peter Lee – who has researched and written extensively about precision-guided missiles – can tell you, the likelihood today’s precision weapons hitting a hospital accidentally is negligible.
What’s going wrong for the Russians?
The failure to secure an easy military victory is taking its toll on the Russians as well. We reported last week that as many as seven Russian generals had been killed in the conflict so far, which was taking its toll on the morale of their men. So poor is Russian morale, apparently, that an increasing number of Russian soldiers, many of them young conscripts, are deserting or refusing to obey orders.
In one incident, mutinous troops are even reported to have run over their commander in a tank. Again, this could easily be dismissed as Ukrainian propaganda but, as Natasha Lindstaedt writes, mutiny and desertion due to low morale and poor leadership have been relatively common in the Russian military since before the revolution.
Putin himself is reported to be increasingly isolated in the Kremlin. He sacked and arrested two of his intelligence chiefs about a month ago and there is much speculation that he is increasingly mistrustful of many of his top intelligence advisors. A former intelligence service head himself, Putin now sits at the top of a complex web of spy agencies that he is known to play off against each other. Stephen Hall, who has researched Russian authoritarianism extensively, walks us through this network.
One thing Putin doesn’t have to worry too much about is criticism from the independent media. That’s because there really isn’t one to speak of. The Russian state pretty much controls all broadcast media and, one by one, independent news organisations have been forced to close or flee the country.
Novaya Gazeta, the only really significant independent newspaper still operating a month into the war, closed down on March 28. Its proprietor, Dmitry Muratov, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for the bravery of his organisation’s coverage of Russian politics, hopes his global profile will continue to keep him safe. Ilya Yablokov and Elisabeth Schimpfössl have the story.
The human cost
The highest price in all this is being paid by the Ukrainian people. Millions have been forced to flee their homes and an estimated 4.3 million have left Ukraine altogether. As the UK prepares to welcome these traumatised humans to a safer haven, Christian Dustmann and Ian Preson, both economists with a special interest in migration, list six practical steps to enable Ukrainian refugees find peace and safety while the conflict rages in their home country.
Those displaced people left in Ukraine, meanwhile, must also be given whatever help is possible under the most difficult of circumstances. Muhammed Azmat, who specialises in supply chains and autonomous vehicles, spells out ways in which drones and unmanned vehicles could help in finding displaced people and providing them with essential supplies they need to survive.
Aid agencies are doing their best to do this work in the most difficult of circumstances as the war continues to rage. And, as Nonhlanhla Dube – who specialises in the study of humanitarian operations – proposes, they could teach peace negotiators some important lessons about how to bring warring parties together. They’ve been doing that for years, she says.
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