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Between War and War Crimes.
President Biden labeled Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” over atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha. That has serious implications for ending the war.
Over the weekend, horrific images emerged from Bucha, a small suburb of Kyiv that had been occupied by Russian forces. Bodies in civilian clothing, bound and shot through; the living tormented by atrocities they can never unsee. I hate recounting atrocities. But though we want to look away, these are the kinds of brutalities that demand we pay attention. What is there to say about humans brutalizing other humans? How do you make sense of senselessness?
It was hard to bring myself to write about Bucha. But this atrocity has changed the shape of this conflict, and I wanted to look to history to help us understand what may have changed about the future.
One of the more common refrains about this war is that it’s the “first war on European soil in 80 years.” But it’s not. The last war on European soil occurred in the early ‘90s after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. It, too, involved a murderous would-be autocrat invading a neighboring people under false pretenses. It was the invasion of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 1992 and the genocide that they waged against the Bosnian Muslim community. The occupying force engaged in systematic mass rape and indiscriminate shelling of civilians at the Markale marketplace.
The victims included the over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were summarily rounded up and executed over two weeks under warlord Ratko Mladic’s orders in Srebrenica.
It’s strange and surreal how we’ve erased their suffering from history in our attempts to highlight the gravity of what’s happening in Ukraine. That said, Muslims are often scrubbed from European history. Indeed, I unintentionally did it myself in a previous article, and wouldn’t even have realized it if I weren’t corrected by a Bosnian American friend.
Beyond the need to correct the record, I raise this history for two reasons. First, to remind us what happened next: NATO, led by the Clinton administration, intervened through Operation Deliberate Force, dropping over 1,000 bombs to dismantle Milosevic’s forces, hastening the wars end.
It also reminds us what ultimately happened to Slobodan Milosevic, the war criminal who oversaw the Bosnian War. For 13 years, he held control over Serbia’s media and political apparatus. After calling a surprise election, his opposition was able to settle on a unity candidate who beat him roundly. Milosevic first tried to deny the results, then obfuscated them — and ultimately had them annulled. The people took to the streets, forcing him finally from office. He was never held accountable for his war crimes, though. He died during his trial at The Hague in 2006, four years after the beginning of his trial — 12 years after the atrocities themselves. Mladic, his henchman in Srebrenica, was finally convicted in 2017.
It’s this history that is critical to understanding how Russia’s actions in Bucha may have altered the future. Bucha has changed the stakes of the war. It reconfirmed our worst fears about Vladimir Putin and his army. But it may also have created an additional aim for international policymakers. After news of the atrocities broke, President Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and said, "But we have to gather the information. We have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight and we have to get all the details so this can be an actual–have a war crime trial."
Whether it was intended or not, Biden has raised the stakes. Rather than only ending the war, Biden’s words extend the aims of U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine to holding Putin and his army accountable for their atrocities. And the precedent for how to do that was set 30 years ago by his predecessor, President Clinton — and involved acts of war.
For his part, Putin can’t help but take a lesson from Slobodan Milosevic’s ignominious end — rotting away in a jail cell in The Hague while on trial for his crimes. By perpetrating war crimes in Bucha, Putin has put his back further to the wall.
Needless to say, there are clearly differences between Bosnia 30 years ago and Ukraine today. But they only make the circumstances more dire: Putin possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and a far stronger grip on his country than Milosevic had. The Biden administration has been involved in Ukraine far more deeply than the Clinton administration had been involved in the former Yugoslavia. And the Cold War sets an ominous historical backdrop.
To be sure, we must take every effort to hold the perpetrators of war crimes accountable. But what of the wars that always serve as their backdrop? War crimes in Bucha have created an inherent tension that is nearly impossible to resolve. There would never have been a Bucha without Putin’s invasion of Ukraine just as there would never have been a Srebrenica without Milosevic’s invasion of Bosnia. Although the invaders are also the perpetrators of war crimes, ending war ends war crimes. And that’s the danger here — the fact that war crimes have been perpetrated raises the stakes for all involved, and the scepter of holding war criminals accountable may prolong the very war that makes war crimes possible.
Putin is an autocrat — and almost certainly a war criminal. But the best way to engage with the senseless murder of innocent civilians in Bucha is to make sure it stops happening. And that’s why ending this war has to remain the single most important, unifying goal for all of us who value the lives of Ukrainians.