It is now clear that the targeting of Ukrainian civilians is deliberate and systematic. The West’s uncoordinated sanctions against Russian oligarchs have not been enough to prevent mass atrocity.
Bucha, a small town in Ukraine, will be forever remembered as the scene of atrocities so depraved that it will rank alongside some of the worst excesses of World War II.
The repeated warnings on news bulletins that viewers may find some images disturbing seriously understates the reality – corpses strewn across streets, hands still tied behind backs and bullets in heads. Some female bodies were naked, having been raped and tortured by departing Russian soldiers, ordered by their commanders to abandon, at least for now, their move towards the capital, Kyiv.
These are the victims of the war, along with half the nation’s children, who are now homeless thanks to Russian bombing. There are now an estimated four million Ukrainian refugees. The Kyiv School of Economics assesses the cost of damage and destruction in the first month of war at US$63 billion. Apart from airports, power plants, and factories, which might be considered legitimate targets of war, the toll includes 4431 residential buildings, 378 institutes of secondary and higher education, and 138 hospitals and health centres.
A slurry of attempts to try and create a ceasefire in Ukraine ended in failure. Most of the talk in recent days has been of a Nuremberg-style trial with Russian president Vladimir Putin and his gang indicted for war crimes.
How will all this end? As I indicated a month ago, the answer is likely to be “badly.” It is very hard to see how the parties can be reconciled. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, put it succinctly when he told the United Nations Security Council that the UN was no longer able to carry out the purpose for which it was set up. His is a sentiment with which most sensible people will agree. But then, world leaders have been trying to make the UN more effective since former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans tried to introduce reforms several decades ago.
So it is not easy to see how this unnecessary war can be settled, still less to pontificate about the future of Russia and Putin in the increasingly unstable world. All we can do now is to look back over the reaction of the West over the last month and try and form an opinion on actions that have been well-judged and those that have failed.
But before that we must briefly address the West’s past failures. When, just a few days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I stood in Gorky Park among the smashed statues that had commemorated the Communist regimes of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Co., I told viewers the hope was for a new democracy aligned with Western Europe. But with Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of state assets by then an international movement, avaricious bankers and brokers in London and New York set about grabbing the big fees available in selling off the vast utilities, banks, and services owned and operated by the Soviet Union, creating what was called “people’s capitalism.”
Alas, the millions of Russians who were allocated shares were not educated in the operation of the share market. They soon found out that their share certificates would not buy them a bottle of vodka, let alone pay the rent. The Russian people had not owned shares since before the Revolution of 1917-23, so when a number of savvy Russians, many of them ranking officials or managers in state institutions, offered them roubles, they took the cash. And so the Russian oligarch was born, and a former KGB spy in Dresden, Vladimir Putin, began his inexorable rise.
Which brings us to the present, where the first actions against Putin were to impose sanctions on the oligarchs and others believed to be closest to him. This has been very much a hit and miss affair, with some countries omitting to sanction those chosen by others. For example, Roman Abramovich, the multi-billionaire owner of Britain’s Chelsea football club, was sanctioned by the United Kingdom but not by the United States. The British government is in the final stages of selling off Chelsea FC for a reported price of A$5.2 billion and freezing the proceeds along with numerous properties that the Russian owns in the UK.
There is likely a degree of Schadenfreude in this decision, given demands from the tabloid press for such action. Perhaps under the influence of his London-based daughter who opposes the war, the oligarch has been acting as an intermediary between the West and Russia. Significantly, he met with Zelensky and took a personal letter from him to Putin, flying secretly from Turkey to Moscow to deliver it in person. Putin’s riposte was “Tell him we will thrash them.” Prior to that journey, Abramovich and a Ukrainian minister were both poisoned, each losing their sight for a day but fortunately not their lives. Both have continued to participate in talks brokered by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Then there was the case of Polina Kovaleva, wrongly described by the UK government as the stepdaughter of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. She is actually the child of a female friend of Lavrov. Aged 26, she came to Britain as a schoolgirl, attended university, and works for Aramco, the Saudi oil company, in London. Now sanctioned, she loses access to her A$7 million home in Kensington.
Yet it is only now the European Union has got around to considering sanctioning key executives of Russian corporations, each with huge influence on Russian life. This week, a number of European countries, but excluding France, kicked out 300 Russian diplomats, labelling them as spies. Also this week, the United States has belatedly frozen Russia’s dollar-based gold reserves, from which Putin’s government had been drawing to pay overseas debt. Sanctions on Russia so far have seen a drop in world trade of 2.8 percent in the last month, much of it in cut shipments from Russia and Ukraine, but still not enough to offset the huge surge in energy prices that have benefited Russia’s oil and gas revenues.
In recent days, the European Union leaders have met to agree a set of actions including a ban on coal imports from Russia and the exclusion of all Russian ships from European ports. Britain is increasing its supply of its Starstreak high velocity missile system to Ukraine, while the Czech Republic is about to become the first NATO country to meet president Zelensky’s demand for tanks. The United States is considering creating one or more forward military bases in Eastern Europe, close to the border with Russia. But the NATO alliance still shrinks from providing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, still seeming to think that it can defeat Putin without the loss of a single NATO life.
Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher sent British troops across the world to retrieve the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian invader, knowing there would be loss of life by doing so. So far, no Western leader seems willing to take that risk for Ukraine.
Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He was president of AIIA New South Wales.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.