Over the past month, journalists, aid workers, and others have documented multiple probable war crimes in Ukraine during Russia’s bombardment of its cities. The devastation in some places has been so thorough that the distinction between indiscriminate shelling and targeting of hospitals and schools has been lost, and concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin would create new Aleppos in Ukraine have proven prescient. But the pictures and reporting coming out of Bucha, a commuter town on the outskirts of Kyiv, have landed differently than what we’ve previously seen.
The alleged atrocities by Russian soldiers in Bucha appear to have been an act of deliberate, face-to-face barbarism—purposeful killings of civilians that were carried out not by a pilot dropping a bomb or a soldier launching a missile, but up close with sidearms and rifles. At the White House on Monday, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said of Bucha, “We do not believe that this is just a random accident or the rogue act of a particular individual. We believe that this was part of the plan.” Sullivan’s assessment is chilling: that the killings and sexual violence were carried out as matter of military planning, with at least general direction from the top, as part of an overall strategy to subjugate Ukraine by unleashing a torrent of hideous violence.
Barbaric orders still do not explain—and certainly don’t exonerate—barbaric behavior. It is unlikely these were the actions of soldiers seeking a battlefield advantage; rather, they were probably crimes by soldiers who had failed in their mission. Even setting aside the laws of war, the killings don’t appear to have any tactical value.
So what, then, from the perspective of the perpetrators, was the point? One explanation is that the killings were intended as revenge against victims who exposed their bullies’ monstrousness. There also may be a parallel in the Russian public’s apparent growing support for Putin’s war; part of the explanation is that, as Puck News correspondent Julia Ioffe put it, “The Russian propaganda machine has trained the Russian public to want blood, and now they want blood.” But it’s not just that they want blood—it’s that they’ve been supportive of the regime so far, and confronting its crimes would have devastating implications for their complicity, so instead they double down on their support and on dehumanizing its victims.
The seriousness of the alleged war crimes in Bucha is reflected in the energetic deceit of the Russian response. Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the reports as fake news, claiming that they were staged. In a toxic cocktail of chutzpah and victimhood, Russia demanded a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss what it claims were crimes staged to make it look bad. This circus of cynicism is a sign that Russia believes that these revelations will matter, but its behavior is a confession dressed up as a denial.
Although the Bucha revelations are unlikely to change the analysis on whether other countries, including the United States, should get involved as co-combatants (including by implementing a no-fly zone), they do shift the international politics around the war. For example, Israel has so far attempted to walk a fine line of not taking sides or condemning Russia, but on Sunday, its foreign minister weighed in, saying that it was “impossible to remain indifferent” to the images from Bucha. He condemned what happened as a war crime. For many other countries and their citizens, the images from Bucha increase the moral pull to aid Ukraine in its war of self-defense and to support its efforts to defeat Russia through additional military assistance, sanctions, and accountability.
Before the war began, three countries were assisting Ukraine with defense equipment. That number has now risen to thirty-five—a tremendously effective internationalizing of military support that has been facilitated by U.S. diplomacy and operational planning. Expanded support will also depend on the United States, even after these new revelations. Sullivan told reporters on Monday that the United States will continue to both contribute weapons and coordinate a broader effort. The UK announced that it will deliver coastal defense systems, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country would send more weapons, and Polish President Andrzej Duda tweeted that Ukraine needed three things: “weapons, weapons, and more weapons.” Last month, the U.S. administration scuttled the proposal to transfer Poland’s MiG fighter jets to Ukraine, but the United States may find it increasingly hard to deny a democratic state enduring alleged war crimes this additional measure of self-defense. In addition, the United States is preparing to transfer tanks to Ukraine, so the line against sending tanks that fly might seem thin.
On increasing economic pressure, the most consequential additional moves are likely to come from Europe. Prominent Italian commentator Nathalie Tocci tweeted support for a full energy embargo. German energy minister Robert Habeck, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, and the chancellery have all publicly acknowledged the need for more sanctions in recent days, though the government seems to have an ongoing disagreement over whether an energy embargo is on the table. Europe has not yet banned several large Russian banks from SWIFT, so that too may be on the table. As new sanctions are considered, Western leaders may be less focused on restrictions that target Putin and his oligarchs. While the Russian public are not combatants, their reported cheerful political support for Putin’s war may convince some leaders to design sanctions that are overtly intended to have consequences for the Russian people in order to raise the costs of their cheerleading.
Finally, the events in Bucha must hypercharge a joint transatlantic effort to ensure future accountability for war crimes committed by Putin, his regime, and the Russian military. Pursuing accountability requires careful homework now—gathering evidence and documentation—and sorting through thorny legal and political issues later. The international community and its existing mechanisms have already begun to take action: The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes; the International Court of Justice ruled the war a violation of international law; the UN Human Rights Council—from which the United States is seeking Moscow’s expulsion—created a Commission of Inquiry; and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has invoked the Moscow Mechanism to address human rights and humanitarian impacts of the war.
Given the alleged scope of the crimes and the likely number of culprits, the international community should also engage with Ukraine’s own justice system and may need to contemplate the creation of new mechanisms for accountability, including a special court or tribunal. Any such effort would likely depend on Euro-Atlantic cooperation. In addition, the Russian people will need to go through a de-Putinization process that will require thoughtful policies informed by social psychology. It's not too soon to think about that.
Whether or not Bucha proves to be another inflection point in the West’s resolve to ensure that Putin loses this war, the alleged war crimes carried out by Russian troops likely make a settlement or ceasefire more unthinkable in the near term. One of the things that Putin failed to understand about Ukraine before he invaded is that it is a democracy, for all its warts and flaws, with a leader who is accountable to the people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has earned real legitimacy from his courageous wartime leadership, but he is, unlike Putin, not a dictator or a commander of a monopolistic propaganda machine. He’s still answerable to the Ukrainian people. Every horrific photo or video from Bucha or elsewhere gives Zelenskyy more reason to fight on against the aggressor and less space for any other course. The West should support him.