There is a narrative out there which attempts to persuade the ill-informed that the invasion of Ukraine, launched by Russia on 24 February 2022, is Ukraine’s fault. This narrative suggests that a combination of Kyiv’s aspiration for Nato membership, its ambition for closer integration with richer European economies and its preference for a full, open democratic system of government has meant it “deserves” Russian intervention.
According to this distorted logic, in a grotesque parody, Russia did not attack Ukraine, but Ukraine mounted an illegitimate defence of itself.
This narrative is false and immoral. It collapses completely when contemplating the actions that Russia is taking, apparently in Vladimir Putin’s own reasoning, to destroy Ukraine in order to “save” it. Ukraine did not invade itself. It is not bombing its own cities, destroying its own industries, killing civilians, flouting international law, abusing human rights and smashing lives. This is Russia’s role and should be its responsibility.
This destruction and systematic violation of rights has been done in full international view over the last six weeks from Mariupol to Kharkiv, Kherson to Mykolaiv, and, most starkly, in Bucha.
In Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, following a month of Russian occupation, among the 400 bodies exhumed was clear evidence of torture, rape, and summary execution.
Reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch and many others suggest that Russia is responsible for widespread and systematic human rights violations.
When presented with such evidence, including satellite imagery, Russia has simply responded that the atrocities were staged. This pattern of denial is what Ukrainians have had to live with historically in our relations with Russia and especially since its invasion of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. It is a pattern of fake news and the pathological avoidance of responsibility with which the international community is familiar.
Yet by mid-March, multiple personal interviews with civilians who managed to escape the Russian occupation in the northern parts of Kyiv reported incidents of rape and murder. These accounts were harrowing and echoed events in Rwanda and other cases where militaries turned their weapons on a defenceless civilian population.
These events are precisely why all nations have signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the article that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
This is not a negotiable commitment, one dependent on political and economic relationships. It is an inalienable right that binds nations in a code of conduct. And yet satellite images collected by the Maxar Technology Company on 10 March 2022 show a trench dug to be used as a mass grave in Bucha. Images from 11 March show dead civilians on the streets of Bucha.
Such clear proof exists of civilians murdered in the region prior to 19 March 2022. Russia claims that the corpses only appeared after the withdrawal of Russian troops on 30 March, and that “humanitarian aid” was provided to the civilians outside of Kyiv.
To support Russia is to support lies over principle and authoritarianism over democracy, and to be on the wrong side of history and morality.
Again, there is evidence of widespread looting by Russian soldiers in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Borodyanka. Additionally, Russian troops, despite the establishment of so-called “green corridors”, denied citizens the opportunity to flee occupied Bucha. The absence of these “green corridors” resulted in citizens attempting to flee the war through other channels. Their cars were shot at, their occupants killed and burned. Dozens of cars were found on the Zhytomyr highway between the settlements of Myla and Stoyanka.
The Russian military has tried to conceal its crimes by deliberately killing journalists who tried to provide media coverage of the war. In March alone, the Russian military killed four and wounded two foreign and Ukrainian journalists and cameramen.
The situation is the same or worse in other cities and villages in the northern part of Ukraine including Hostomel, Vorzel, Irpin, Borodyanka, Dmytrivka, Motyzhyn, Makariv, Dymer, Kozarovychi, Katyuzhanka and elsewhere. There is good reason to believe that it is much worse in the territories that are still occupied or surrounded by Russian forces, such as Mariupol, where Russian forces will no doubt attempt a cover-up of their grisly actions.
Ukraine is a sovereign country with 43 million inhabitants. Russia is dedicated to turning it into a ruin. In the first 42 days of this war, Russia has destroyed 274 health facilities, 869 educational institutions and 6,800 residential buildings. More than 4.5 million Ukrainians and thousands of non-Ukrainians (including South Africans) have been turned into international refugees, and six million into internally displaced persons.
The death toll – currently thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children – is growing every day. As attacks intensify, this sad tally is likely to increase more rapidly.
Russia must answer to the world for what it has done. That time will come. But first it is necessary to stop this war.
Those countries committed to human rights, protection before the law and freedom of choice and opportunity should support us. Who knows, if they don’t, if they will be next? DM