The reports and photographs showing an apparent massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, are truly terrible. They are reminiscent of the atrocities used to galvanize Western opinion during Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when the Srebrenica Massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo were seared into Western consciousness.
Of course, pictures do not always tell the whole story. For example, to determine whether a war crime took place we must know who did the killing, why, and how. After all, the United States killed many thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, frequently by accident, in the course of those wars. Few in the United States or Europe would call those actions war crimes. This all became apparent after the United States exonerated itself for the annihilation of an Afghan family via a missile strike during the withdrawal of U.S. forces last summer. Oops.
Like any crime, a war crime must involve intent or at least recklessness. Killing civilians or POWs without trial, or humiliating them as an act of revenge, are each undoubtedly war crimes. The documented abuse of prisoners by Donetsk People’s Republic commander Givi was the basis for a Ukrainian war crimes investigation against him, before he was assassinated in 2017.
If civilians were shot and purposefully killed in Bucha, it undoubtedly would be a war crime and a terrible thing. But there are credible reasons to believe the so-called Bucha Massacre was not the doing of the Russian Forces, but rather of the Ukrainians—either local militia or SBU or some combination of thereof—as part of brutal reprisals against “saboteurs” and “Russian collaborators.”
First, this fits with a pattern of Ukrainian forces violating the rules of war, as evidenced by numerous videos showing the shooting of prisoners, torturing civilians, and the like. Unlike the still photos in Bucha, these videos show the actions themselves, as well as the perpetrators, which even the New York Times recently acknowledged.
Second, Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelenskyy has given numerous speeches calling for the punishment of “saboteurs” and “traitors,” saying the war will ultimately end with the “de-Russification” of Ukraine. These are tough words, which clearly would tend to inflame and encourage the more extremist elements.
Three, the atmosphere in Ukraine is ripe for war crimes. While U.S. Second Amendment supporters were understandably heartened by the Ukrainian government’s weapons giveaway, some of those weapons ended up in the hands of criminals and undisciplined characters. This was not a mere oversight; Ukraine deliberately freed prisoners with combat experience in order to allow them to fight. One would not expect this group to be scrupulous adherents to the laws of war.
There are also many documented accounts of Ukrainians killing one another out of paranoia about spies and saboteurs. It is easy enough to see why. There is a hair’s breadth of difference between Ukrainians and Russians, and many in the East only speak Russian, have supported Russia, or at least have a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the Ukraine regime. This fuels the possibility of internecine violence, which will be rationalized after the fact as the clearing out of traitors and fifth columnists.
Four, the timeline of reports creates real doubts about whether Russia perpetrated the Bucha Massacre. It is widely acknowledged that Russian forces left Bucha on March 30. Then, Bucha’s mayor happily announced their withdrawal on March 31 without any mention of massacres, bodies in the streets, or other war crimes. Finally, the Ukrainian SBU said it was moving into Bucha on April 2 to conduct a “cleansing” operation against saboteurs and traitors.
The photos of the dead only appeared on April 2, and Zelenskyy soon appeared in order to give international journalists a tour. Reuters and the New York Times have also posted Maxar satellite images apparently showing bodies in the streets earlier on March 19. This is not as compelling as it might otherwise be; bodies left outside for two weeks would not be in the condition seen in the April 2 photos, but instead would be significantly decomposed. If there were bodies on the street earlier in March—whether combatants or civilians—they had to be different people than the dead civilians on display from April 2.
Fifth, in at least some of the photos of Bucha , the victims appear to have white armbands—a sign of friendliness towards Russian forces and an indicator used by Russian forces themselves—and Russian-supplied emergency rations. Perhaps unsure of who was truly controlling the town as Russian forces were withdrawing and desperate for food to feed their families, these actions were deemed sufficient proof for collaboration and led the Ukrainian forces to shoot them. There is also some evidence that at least some of the victims may have been caught in an artillery barrage by Ukraine forces entering the city (or possibly Russian forces who had retreated).
Finally, the Ukrainians surely know that allegations of Russian atrocities—like earlier stories about Russia attacking nuclear plants and suggestions of Russia’s imminent use of chemical weapons—are the easiest way to manipulate the West into becoming a combatant. Similar “just so” stories had much to do with American involvement in the Syrian civil war. They were timed to appear just as the United States made noises about withdrawing. Stories about either genocide or the use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine are likely to amplify NATO’s already significant assistance to the Ukrainians.
This all matters not as a defense of Russia’s actions in general, which reasonable people can believe have been both unnecessary and disproportionate to whatever threat Ukraine presented in its aspirations to join NATO. Rather, it’s a question of whether atrocity stories will lead to U.S. involvement in another war that does not advance America’s national interests. Whether it was the Rape of Belgium alleged in World War I, genocide in Kosovo, or Iraqi troops “removing babies from incubators” in Kuwait, lurid and false atrocity stories have been used before to encourage Western involvement in unnecessary wars. As with ordinary criminal investigations, it is always worth asking if the source has a motive to lie about culpability.
Russia has called for an independent investigation of these events through the U.N. Security Council, but the current chair, the United Kingdom, apparently refused to convene the council. Why? Wouldn’t an independent investigation be the best way to determine what happened? Of course, the truth here is secondary, and neither Ukraine nor the West would have any interest in uncovering the extent of Ukrainian war crimes. Rather, it is clear the United States and the EU are invested in prolonging the war in order to weaken and punish Russia, even though the next phase appears likely to be much worse for everyone involved, with the Kiev government calling for the mass evacuation of the East in its most recent communications.
For all the ink spilled in condemning what is being called the Bucha Massacre, one wonders if the calls for war crimes trials and claims that the responsible government is illegitimate would be withdrawn if it turns out not Vladimir Putin and Russia, but Voldomyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine, were responsible for whatever took place in Bucha. The question answers itself.