Civilians are already paying the ultimate price for a Russian invasion in breach of international law.
Vladimir Putin is not only piling body on body in Ukraine. He is also piling crime upon crime. His unprovoked and illegal invasion of a democratic state has already caused substantial civilian casualties, as well as the deaths of Russian soldiers. The failure to achieve the swift victory he anticipated is increasing its cruelty.
The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights said on Tuesday morning that it had recorded 136 civilian deaths, including 13 children, and 400 injured, but believed the true toll to be much higher; it grew in the hours following that announcement. Human rights groups report the use of cluster bombs – banned by many countries – which hit a preschool and close to a hospital. In Kharkiv, missiles struck the regional government building in Freedom Square, rained down upon homes and killed people fleeing or seeking food and water. Thermobaric weapons, so powerful they can vaporise bodies, have been photographed in Ukraine, and its ambassador to the US says Russia has already used them.
On Tuesday afternoon, Russia’s defence ministry told Kyiv residents to leave their homes, an acknowledgment that the “precision strikes” they were announcing against security service targets would be nothing of the kind. The city’s television tower has been attacked (with a bomb in Mr Putin’s “denazification” offensive striking the neighbouring Holocaust memorial site at Babyn Yar, where German invaders massacred 34,000 Jews in the second world war). A disinformation drive is under way, designed to induce panic. A 40-mile long convoy of troops is making its way towards the capital.
The brutality of Russian tactics has been documented from Grozny (the “most destroyed city on Earth”) to Aleppo. Already in Ukraine we are witnessing “serial criminalities”, believes the human rights lawyer Philippe Sands. Mr Putin’s initial crime of aggression is clear. The prosecutor of the international criminal court in The Hague announced on Monday that he would launch an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity; Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, but has awarded it jurisdiction.
Despite that horror, and while hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing, many ordinary people have resolved to stand and fight, and unarmed civilians are still confronting and challenging Russian troops. Given this asymmetry, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has urged the west to consider imposing a no-fly zone in addition to supplying arms. The US, UK and others have made it clear they will not. No-fly zones have saved lives in the past. But they have done so in utterly different circumstances. The danger of western forces firing at the aircraft of a ruthless and rattled man who has already made nuclear threats is both obvious and immense: a conflagration on a far greater scale, with a much higher death toll.
The Russian president is already escalating his ruthless assault. It is increasingly hard to see how he would feel able to extract his country from this war with anything short of Ukraine becoming a vassal state. An isolated and dangerous man has no exit, does not want to be shown one, and risks losing everything. Though the initial slowness of the offensive has set back Mr Putin’s plans to end Ukrainian independence, this does not reduce the danger to Ukrainian civilians, but increases it.
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Image: Ukrainians shelter in the subway in Kyiv. ‘The war that Mr Putin is waging now looks likely to become far more horrific.’ - Photograph: Oleksandr Khomenko/UPI/REX/Shutterstock