First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

We write for you

It’s a public service and we refuse to erect a paywall and force you to pay for truth. Instead, we ask (nicely and often) that those of you who can afford to, become a Maverick Insider and help with whatever you can. In order for truth not to become a thing of the past, we need to keep going.

Currently, 18,000 (or less than 0.3%) of our brave and generous readers are members; which says a lot about their characters and commitment to our country. These people are paying for a free service in order to keep it free for everyone.

They are the true South AfriCANs.(Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves.)

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Biden ‘gaffe’ gathers moral impetus while Zelensky...

Defend Truth

WAR IN EUROPE

Biden ‘gaffe’ gathers moral impetus while Zelensky call mirrors 1936 Emperor Haile Selassie plea

A man works to catalogue some of 58 bodies of civilians killed in and around Bucha on 6 April before they are transported to the morgue at a cemetery. The Ukrainian government has accused Russian forces of committing a ‘deliberate massacre’ as they occupied and eventually retreated from Bucha, 25km northwest of Kyiv. Hundreds of bodies have been found in the days since Ukrainian forces regained control of the town. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s so-called gaffe about Vladimir Putin gathers moral strength from revelations of alleged war crimes in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine near Kyiv. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelensky’s virtual speech at the UN recalls another speech — Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s unsuccessful plea at the League of Nations 86 years ago for help to liberate his country from the Italian army.

Only a short while ago, US President Joe Biden was being chastised for — presumably — going off-script with nine explosive words right at the end of his speech in Warsaw. Up until that sentence, his speech was largely judged as simultaneously tough, smart, well-modulated and righteous; that is until he added, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” 

Biden’s critics quickly accused him of nibbling dangerously at the idea of regime change by an outside nation, thus further inflaming Putin’s ire and his behaviour towards Ukraine. Or, perhaps, some critics posited, Biden’s words were surreptitiously proposing the assassination of a national leader. Shock and horror. Yes, there were a few exceptions, such as the columnist Max Boot, who judged Biden’s words correct in his criticism of Putin and Biden’s staff wrong for trying to tidy things up, but the general tenor of comments was that Biden had made yet another gaffe. 

Those-by-now-usual snarky tropes about Biden soon came out of the woodwork: He’s too old; he can’t even deliver a speech without a teleprompter; heck, he can’t even follow that teleprompter. And besides, his critics went on, a president just doesn’t go running around threatening to decapitate another nation’s government. There are rules. The Sunday news broadcast talk shows, newspaper commentaries, editorials and social media were filled with remonstrances about those nine words at the tail-end of Biden’s speech. 

Well, okay, yes, those rules are unwritten and they are sometimes honoured in the breach rather than the observance. It has not been beyond the US government to carry out (or attempt to abet) an occasional regime change in the past — think about Salvador Allende or Ngo Dinh Diem, for example. Or even that exploding cigar intended for (but never reaching) Fidel Castro. For the sake of fairness, of course, such actions have also been carried out by the other former superpowers over the years. Recall the fates of Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček or Hungary’s Imre Nagy, or further back in history, almost certainly the fate of Czech prime minister Jan Masaryk as well.

Following the commentariat firestorm, Biden’s people in the White House quickly tried to tidy things up, explaining that the president was actually speaking metaphorically and from the anguish in his heart over events in Ukraine, rather than as a specific expression of actual government policy. Biden himself tried to re-explain the explanation by arguing that, of course, it was up to the Russian people to select — and change — its leaders, but that they should make a different sort of choice and that a man like Putin should not be in a position to dispatch his military on his neighbours.

Along the way, Biden, speaking further on the topic, has now also called out Putin as a war criminal. Again there has been much tut-tutting from presumably wiser commentators about the propriety of one head of state calling another a war criminal for carrying out — or indeed ordering — crimes against humanity or possibly, even delivering a kind of genocide. Some chastised Biden — again — for a pronouncement that seemed to be doubling down on that first, already controversial statement.

Diminished Expectations? David Mabuza’s race for ANC deputy presidency hits Mpumalanga brick wall

But what a difference a week has made. It only took shocking revelations about the treatment of civilians in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. These should not have been too surprising given the Russian military track record running back through Aleppo and Grozny, although these newest discoveries seem especially astonishing in their savagery.

The charges are of a rolling massacre of innocents, mass graves, bodies of civilians found lying in the gardens of wrecked homes with their hands and feet tied and then — inevitably — killed by the bullet in the back of the neck. Then there has been the testimony from victims of multiple rapes. Collectively, these acts would seem to be the kind of appalling treatment of innocent victims inflicted by an invading horde.

Two possibilities present themselves over this behaviour — neither very good. First, perhaps it has been a situation where field commanders have largely lost control over their troops’ behaviour and that the units effectively decayed into a heavily armed (and sometimes drunken) mob, rather than a disciplined military force, in the face of successful attacks by Ukrainian defenders. The invaders were intent on carrying out as much retaliatory violence as they could, while they could. Perhaps, too, they were angry about having been forced into this pointless invasion at the growing risk to their own lives.

A more appalling alternative, of course, would be that this kind of killing spree was ordered by their commanders, and perhaps, ultimately, by the commanders’ commander. It is true, historically, that a nation’s supreme leader rarely issues such direct orders — that is, unless the leader is someone like Tamerlane who boasted of the mounds of skulls his conquests had left behind in the cities his armies had sacked. But there can always be instructions and orders that have built-in plausible deniability within them. That is the modern way.

But if this second alternative (or some individual lower-level commander’s decision) is what has occurred, then that is the way of a conqueror in unleashing the fear of lethal terror as a well-understood means of immobilising an opposition, in addition to the obvious potential for some well-understood fear of random deaths as punishment for being part of a resisting population. And those in command will have committed various versions of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.

In our own time, Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, the Serb Republic in Bosnia’s Radovan Karadžić, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, among others, have been accused of war crimes for their actions, and eventually have had to face international justice for their acts. 

Despite the growing collection of televised images of death in Ukraine, and corroborating documentation coming from private companies’ public source imaging data, as well as data from Western governments, there have been angry responses by Russian spokespersons that beggar credulity. In this, Russia is reaching back to that older Soviet playbook used to deal with the revelations of those mass killings in the Katyn Forest of a generation of Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret police, following the partition of Poland in 1939. Given the circumstances of World War 2, the Soviets could blame Nazi Germany’s Gestapo when the graves were discovered after the Soviet army liberated Katyn. It took until the collapse of the Soviet Union for the truth to be revealed. 

In the current circumstances, the Russian claim has been that all those dead people were killed by Ukrainian forces (presumably in the short, chaotic intervals between Russian occupation and their withdrawal and Ukrainian liberation of those towns). Or, alternatively, the Russians charged, all those dead people were really actors pretending to be those dead people shot in the back of the head, or as their ultimate fallback, all that visual evidence was simply photoshopped in a campaign to defame Russia’s military. 

Nevertheless, it is an awkward fact for Russia and its president that depredations against Ukraine’s civilian population keep getting discovered just as Russian forces withdraw from a town and as Ukrainian forces enter those streets, uncovering yet more gruesome evidence of these killings. Further, independent photo analysis has shown that those corpses were to be encountered on those streets before the Russian military actually pulled out.

With the killings in the towns near Kyiv now being revealed in their full horror, in addition to the ongoing suffering and devastation in places like Mariupol, Biden’s nine impassioned words, instead of being seen as a dreadful gaffe that has upended nascent peace efforts, now seem more like a prescient vision, a look into a dark future of continuing criminal actions amid hostilities, and actions that demand redress and responsibility. 

With these revelations, Biden’s expression of his personal anguish may actually be helping buttress the coalition supporting Ukraine, by underscoring the stakes of this conflict. That sentiment may help galvanise the global conversation about the depredations being visited upon Ukraine due to the personal animus of the Russian president towards a Ukraine that remains defiantly unwilling to tug its national forelock and gratefully rejoin Putin’s Slavic “Third Rome”. 

Putin is already being referred to by some as “The Butcher of Bucha” in recognition of the town where the killings were first documented. That sobriquet is close to the kind of thing an unhinged leader would endorse. Perhaps some in the Kremlin are contemplating what they must do to right their ship to avoid further domestic economic disaster and the baleful effect on their military. 

As all this has been playing out, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke on Tuesday through a virtual link to the UN Security Council — including the Russian representative present by virtue of the fact that Russia is a permanent member of that body. In his speech, Zelensky accused Russian troops of indiscriminately killing civilians, speaking the day after he had visited Bucha itself. Zelensky said Russia’s actions were no different from those of a terror group, save for the fact Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council. 

As CNN reported Zelensky’s speech

“The Ukrainian leader then criticized the body, asking representatives point blank: ‘Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It is not there, though there is a Security Council.’ Zelensky added, ‘It is obvious that the key institution of the world designed to combat aggression and ensure peace cannot work effectively. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to remind you of Article 1, Chapter 1 of the UN Charter. What is the purpose of our organization? Its purpose is to maintain and make sure that peace is adhered to. And now the UN charter is violated literally starting with Article 1. And so what is the point of all other Articles?’ ” 

Zelensky said further there was “not a single crime” the Russians “would not commit,” and that Russian troops had “searched for and purposefully killed anyone who served our country. They shot and killed women outside their houses when they just tried to call someone… They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies.” 

He added, “I am addressing you on behalf of the people who honour the memory of the deceased every single day and in the memory of the civilians who died, who were shot and killed in the back of their head after being tortured. Some of them were shot on the streets. Others were thrown into wells, so they died there suffering. They were killed in their apartments, houses, blown up by grenades. Civilians were crushed by tanks while sitting in their cars in the middle of the road, just for their pleasure. Women were raped and killed in front of their children. Their tongues were pulled out only because the aggressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.” 

That was quite a charge sheet. Realistically, though, nobody expects Russia to be expelled from the Security Council, to be censured by the UN General Assembly, or for it to be kicked off UN committees like its human rights body. At best, resolutions may be passed that call for further investigations of charges of criminal acts, but they will be vetoed by the Russian delegation. In such circumstances, it is unlikely the UN will even be the vehicle that brings the crisis to a halt, that brings the invasion to an end, and that sees a settlement negotiated. 

About now, the historically minded may recall another speech, this one delivered on 30 June 1936. Eighty-six years ago, the young Abyssinian monarch Haile Selassie, “The Lion of Judah”, went to the Geneva headquarters of the League of Nations to appeal for help as his nation was being ground down by an invading Italian army, sent by Italy’s ruler, Benito Mussolini. (Watch actual footage here of the emperor speaking in Geneva.)

The Abyssinian army, severely outgunned by its modern opponent, was being crushed and the emperor had gone to Geneva to plead for military help as well as for pressure from the great powers to force the Italians to call a halt to their invasion. 

On that occasion, Haile Selassie had told the assembly, and it is worth quoting at some length, “There is no precedent for a head of state himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor. 

“Also, there has never before been an example of any government proceeding to the systematic extermination of a nation by barbarous means, in violation of the most solemn promises made by the nations of the earth that there should not be used against innocent human beings the terrible poison of harmful gases. 

“It is to defend a people struggling for its age-old independence that the head of the Ethiopian Empire has come to Geneva to fulfil this supreme duty, after having himself fought at the head of his armies.” 

He went on to warn that in 1935, the league had given an assurance “that the aggressor would not triumph, that the resources of the Covenant would be employed in order to ensure the reign of right and the failure of violence. 

“Despite the inferiority of my weapons, the complete lack of aircraft, artillery, munitions, hospital services, my confidence in the league was absolute. I thought it to be impossible that 52 nations, including the most powerful in the world, should be successfully opposed by a single aggressor. Counting on the faith due to treaties, I had made no preparation for war, and that is the case with certain small countries in Europe.” 

Selassie added that as the danger became increasingly apparent, his government had tried to procure weapons to defend itself, although many nations “proclaimed an embargo to prevent my doing so, whereas the Italian government, through the Suez Canal, was given all facilities for transporting without cessation and without protest, troops, arms, and munitions.” 

The emperor argued that collective security was a core element of the league. 

“It is the value of promises made to small states that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of states on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small powers to accept the bonds of vassalship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake.” 

Winding up what he knew already to be an unsuccessful cause, he said, “Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is not on this Earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. 

“…Your assembly will doubtless have laid before it proposals for the reform of the Covenant and for rendering more effective the guarantee of collective security. Is it the Covenant that needs reform? What undertakings can have any value if the will to keep them is lacking? It is international morality which is at stake and not the Articles of the Covenant. 

“On behalf of the Ethiopian people, a member of the League of Nations, I request the assembly to take all measures proper to ensure respect for the Covenant. I renew my protest against the violations of treaties of which the Ethiopian people have been the victim. 

“I ask the 52 nations, who have given the Ethiopian people a promise to help them in their resistance to the aggressor, what are they willing to do for Ethiopia? And the great powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small states on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take? [Italics added.] 

“Representatives of the world, I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of the head of a state. What reply shall I have to take back to my people?” 

Now as then, the question for the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, is whether it has any more stomach for a struggle than the league did before it expired in the face of aggression by Axis Germany, Italy, and Japan. Otherwise, we almost certainly will continue to see more death and devastation as the Ukrainian military makes effective use of the weapons it receives from elsewhere, but as the country is laid waste, as Russian forces are frequently bested in engagements, and as Russian employment of chemical weapons is no longer beyond the realm of possibility. 

Suddenly, Biden’s anguish no longer seems quite so unreasonable. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • Following the indescribable atrocities committed by Russia in Bucha if the UN is to remain relevant to world peace it must stop Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine not just with sanctions but with concomitant military intervention without delay!

  • Excellent. Thank you.

    Those 9 words very accurately represent the views of decent people everywhere. Nothing would make me happier than to see the last of Putin and his entire cohort. The man is beyond monstrous and we have another Hitler and Stalin in the making. It seems that only Biden can see what is coming down the pike.

    Sadly, I think that the West are in the process of throwing Ukraine under the proverbial bus because Western leaders look on ineffectually with half baked sanctions and very little real help. $1 billion in aid to Ukraine is meaningless in the context of $35 billion paid for Russian energy by the EU. The West are funding war crimes and genocide while simpering about how awful it all is. The West is also cynically hoping that the Russian army is terminally weakened by the bravery of the Ukranian people. Shocking but par for the course given the current crop of global “leaders”.

    A pox on all politicians.

  • The fact that history repeats itself and the same power hungry lunatics get away with it due to a system designed to protect the powerful is deeply saddening. Thanks for adding the Ethiopian historical context, there is much that I should but don’t know of our tortured continents past. I trust that by some means, justice will eventually prevail.

  • An excellent article. A rogue State should not be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Furthermore, all Russian assets frozen or seized by foreign governments should in future be used as war reparations to compensate the Ukrainian people in some small measure for the devastation which has been wrought on their country by Putin.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted