Analysis: Whose Warcrime Is It, Anyway?

Throughout this conflict, there have been several events which leap out of the day-to-day violence of the war in Ukraine with curious clarity. All of them concern warcrimes committed against Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops. From the hospital and theatre bombings in Mariupol, to the school shellings in Kharkiv, every one appears to show a brutal and inhumane war against defenceless civilians waged by a callous Russian military.

Some of these events may turn out to be true. Perhaps all of them. But Western readers should be sobered by the thought that on the other side of the conflict, Russian message groups and chatrooms are full of grisly footage of warcrimes committed by the Ukrainian side — footage which never quite reaches our screens in the West. 

These documented atrocities range from cold-blooded executions of prisoners-of-war (POWs) and civilian ‘saboteurs’, right the way up to crucifixion and burning people alive. The context and veracity of such footage is just as questionable as the sort we are receiving as truth from mainstream Western media.

The latest popular atrocity concerns the massacre of civilians in Bucha, a district north of Kiev. Western papers will tell you that as many as 410 civilians were shot by the Russians in a ‘zachistka’ during their occupation. Russian agitators deny this, and blame instead the Ukrainians who reoccupied the district after the Russians left. So, what’s the truth? Whose warcrime is it, anyway?

The Evidence

Large numbers of photographs and footage from Bucha shows dozens of civilians lying dead on the ground. Most appear to have been shot in the head. Some of them have their shirts pulled up over their heads, exposing the torso beneath; many have their hands tied behind their backs. Some photos show the corpses lining the streets at regular intervals. Others show groups of dead civilians surrounded by the detritus of their belongings, ranging from food packs to an incongruous office swivel-chair. This footage poured out of Ukraine yesterday and today (3rd and 4th April).

Due to the volume of footage and the location consistency, it is highly unlikely for this evidence to have been faked. We can conclude that at least a few dozen civilians have been murdered here recently. Most of the bodies are those of men aged 18-65, but at least one young woman was among the dead.

The Ukrainian Claim

The Russians are the badguys in this conflict, so they are obviously to blame for this warcrime — why would Ukraine execute its own civilians, anyway?

Since the bodies are fresh, the Russians must have rounded up the civilians and killed them immediately before leaving. They may have done this to prevent eyewitnesses from testifying against the crimes of individual Russian officers and servicemen, or as a policy of revenge against Ukraine. The Russian military has used zachistka before, including in the Second Chechen War, after all.

Since the start of this conflict, Russia has repeatedly targeted civilian areas, bombing schools, theatres, and hospitals. The Russian military is clearly murderous towards Ukrainian people, and the massacre in Bucha is yet more evidence of this.

The Russian Claim

The idea that Russia committed this atrocity is nonsensical for several reasons.

Firstly, the bodies are fresh; the bloodstains are new, there is no sign of decomposition, and rigor mortis has not set in. Therefore the deed was done close to April 3rd. However, the Russian withdrawal from Bucha took place on 30th March, and was likely completed by 31st March at the latest.

In addition, many of the bodies are photographed next to Russian military MREs (military rations), which were allegedly distributed to civilians as humanitarian aid. This increases the likelihood that the civilians were shot in reprisals, deemed to be ‘collaborators’ or ‘saboteurs’. In an article published on April 2nd, a pro-Ukrainian newspaper stated that Ukrainian special forces were mopping up ‘accomplices’ in recaptured territory:

“Special forces have begun a clearing operation in the city of Bucha in the Kyiv region, which has been liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The city is being cleared from saboteurs and accomplices of Russian forces.

“This has been reported by the National Police.”

Finally, if the Russian military wished to execute these civilians, why would they do it upon withdrawing, and not upon occupying the area at the start of the conflict (about one month ago)?

Russia has called for an international investigation of Ukraine’s claims at the UN, but this has been blocked by Western delegates. Clearly this shows (to the Russian mind) that the West is wrongly portraying Russia as the perpetrator of a warcrime that was in fact done by Ukraine.

Thoughts For The Future

If even a small amount of the footage circulating on Russian social media is true — and some of it seems beyond question — then the uncomfortable truth is that Ukraine has also been guilty of serious warcrimes relating to treatment of POWs and civilians. Regardless of who wins this war, or what happened to the civilians in Bucha, it is unlikely that Ukraine will ever face questioning over these atrocities. They are, after all, the ‘good guys’. 

While scrutiny of Russia’s actions for the murder of civilians during this war is warranted and welcomed, this principle must be applied objectively. If we in the West clamour for the prosecution of one side’s crimes, yet turn a blind eye to the other, then we betray the lofty principle of rules-based international diplomacy that we claim to believe in.

It is perhaps sobering to realise that despite the repeated bombings of Iraq, Libya, Serbia, and Syria by Western airforces in the last three decades, it is very rare if not impossible for footage of the civilians killed by Western bombs and missiles to reach our screens. 

Seeing a dead body provokes a visceral psychological reaction. Governments lure us into wars by showing the dead bodies caused by our enemies’ actions, but they are vigilant in preventing us from seeing the deaths caused by our own.

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