Russian war crimes outrage is necessary but a distraction

by Bob Schwartz

The evidence mounts that Russia has committed and will continue to commit war crimes in Ukraine. The rhetoric of outrage grows louder, insisting that Putin and others be held accountable, tried and convicted.

Here’s something else.

Russia has ruined and will continue to ruin Ukraine, leaving behind a scorched earth that will take at least a generation to fix.

Here’s the difference.

There is small chance, or none, that there will ever be a court in which a case is made (despite plenty of evidence), the criminals voluntarily surrender to the court’s jurisdiction (they would then be tried in absentia), and the criminals forced to suffer punishment if convicted.

(See Explainer: How could Russia’s Putin be prosecuted for war crimes in Ukraine? and War Crimes Watch: Hard path to justice in Bucha atrocities)

There is a certainty that Ukraine, even if Russia left today, would lie in devastating ruins. Ruination that progresses every day in this interminable war.

One is a noble wish and hope. The other is a fact.

Rhetoric has its place, especially in terrible times. But it is not without drawbacks. A call for action may be necessary but not sufficient. Sufficient action and outcomes give body to rhetoric. In the case of war crimes, if we are candid and practical, we should not be expecting outcomes that match the outrage. The mismatch may only make the champions of freedom look ineffectual, just as the reliance on sanctions has proven less effective than promised.

From the start, there have been no “good” choices for the West, as in choices that did not carry uncertain costs, risks and outcomes. In choosing, we should at least be honest about what are the certain outcomes. War crimes trials are unlikely. The decimation of Ukraine is now.