Sometimes a war crime is so egregious and so widely reported that it must stir the conscience of the West. The My Lai massacre in 1968, Srebrenica in 1995, the British suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Rwanda genocide in 1994, Argentina’s disappearances under the junta in the 1980s, or even the reports of dead bodies found in Bulgarian town squares stacks of US war correspondent Januarius MacGahan in 1876 were all moments when the defense of ignorance must be abandoned.
Even then, the truth is more complicated and the West has not always acted. Bill Clinton regretted his failure to respond to the 1994 killings of Tutsis, saying he “did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which they were being committed [Rwandans] were devoured by this unimaginable terror”. Srebrenica was probably only the culmination of the ethnic cleansing that has been going on for three years. My Lai, revealed two years after the event, only gave a boost to an already existing US anti-war movement. The extent of British suppression of the Mau Mau Rebellion was not truly documented until decades later by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag.
So it’s not a given that images of murdered Ukrainian civilians with their hands tied will make cities like Bucha a spur to action when NATO and G7 ministers meet in Belgium this week. Measures like Russia’s exclusion from the UN Human Rights Council may have some symbolic value, but the big test is further European economic sanctions, potentially affecting not only Russia but also the EU.
Clearly nervous, Russia is leaning on its Syrian playbook to claim that the bodies strewn on the streets were part of an inside job staged by Ukrainian defense forces for consumption by gullible Western reporters. Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, claimed: “Today’s Ukrainian neo-Nazis fully respect the old Nazi school of provocation, Goebbels, and try to blame Russia.”
On the basis that attack is the best defense, Moscow tried to call an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Monday, but met with opposition from Britain, the current president of the council. Russia’s diplomatic activity is aimed less at sowing doubts among Westerners and more at holding on to neutrals like China, India, Israel and even Turkey. It is also an act of political self-preservation. Studies of decades of Serbian denial of Srebrenica suggest that self-doubt cannot be tolerated.
For Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the other hand, this must be a turning point, the moment to unleash a tremor in Europe and finally put enough pressure on Germany to stop being Europe’s drag anchor on sanctions. From Ukraine’s point of view, if Germany were to be postponed, other countries such as Austria and Italy, which are reluctant to impose tougher sanctions, would also be included. Italy suggested so much.
For Zelenskyy, a European embargo on Russian energy, even if initially just oil, cannot come soon enough. Latest estimates put Russia to earn up to $320 billion from oil and gas exports by the end of 2022, which is a third more than a year earlier. The Russian ruble rose on Monday, reversing earlier losses, and the Moex benchmark stock index climbed to levels last seen before Russia sent thousands of troops to Ukraine. These are not signs of an economy on the brink of collapse.
In an opening salvo, Zelenskyy invited the two architects of the now-failed 2014-15 Minsk peace process – Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – to come to Bucha to see the road to appeasement morph into this terrible impasse.
His ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, has also intensified his week-long attack on Russia’s friends in Germany. He said in an interview: “They see these atrocities and they are still not ready to do anything to make Putin lose his appetite for these atrocities. How can you sleep if you find strong words after these pictures but do nothing? What else should happen to bring the toughest sanctions to the table? Chemical attacks, or what are you waiting for?”
His relentless criticism of Germany – his most recent broadside was the claim that there was a network of Russophile contacts around Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier – was ultimately counterproductive, many say. But Melnyk can’t help naming those he believes to be guilty. In the Tagesspiegel he named people close to Steinmeier, such as Jens Plötner, the foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the State Secretary in the Foreign Office, Andreas Michaelis (former German Ambassador to Great Britain).
Many important ambassadors also shared Steinmeier’s closeness to Russia. Looking at the front pages of the German press documenting Putin’s war crimes and many German opinion polls, the Ambassador clearly feels that the political class is behind the public, which Germany and its economy are willing to sacrifice. Steinmeier himself has now pronounced a mea culpa: “We have clung to bridges that Russia no longer believes in and that our partners warned us about. My assessment was that Vladimir Putin would not accept the complete economic, political and moral ruin of his country for his imperial madness. Like others, I was wrong.”
But the roadblock is no longer that there is someone in Germany willing to defend the country’s 20-year conscious decision to become dependent on cheap Russian energy. That may have been orthodoxy a year ago during the Nord Stream 2 debates, but has now become heresy. The FDP Vice-Chairman Johannes Vogel wants the Bundestag to analyze how and why such a “misguided” and “naive” Russia policy could have been pursued by previous governments. The chair of the Greens in the Bundestag, Britta Hasselmann, also blames the “failed energy policy” under Merkel and Gerhard Schröder. Even Patrick Pouyanné, the chairman and CEO of TotalEnergies, admits that Germany’s addiction to cheap Russian gas “yes, sort of created this monster”.
But the blame game over Putin’s past misreadings is less important than what Germany is willing to do now. So far, Berlin has stubbornly opposed the exclusion of Russian banks from international payment transactions and a temporary import ban on Russian oil and gas. Pouyanné says it will take four to five years to end Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
Scholz, who is expected in the UK later this week, insists Germany will support further sanctions in response to the war crimes, but other ministers insist this cannot include a total energy ban.
A full embargo will end up hurting Germany more than Russia, Scholz argues, and he has brought in a team of economic modelers who irresponsibly claim a full embargo would only result in a 3% drop in German GDP.
In assuming this position, Scholz has the backing of German business and finance.
Most recently, the CEO of Deutsche Bank, Christian Sewing, warned of the consequences of an interruption in Russia’s energy supply. Sewing, already struggling with rising inflation, said Germany would face “a further worsening of the situation” if imports or supplies of Russian oil and natural gas were halted. “A significant recession in Germany would probably be unavoidable.” The CEO of the chemical group BASF, Martin Brudermüller, pointed out that Russia supplies 55% of the natural gas consumed in Germany and 35% of its oil. “Do we want to destroy our entire economy with our eyes wide open?”
Economics Minister Robert Habeck reluctantly shares this assessment, warning that an immediate import ban would lead to “supply shortages next winter, economic slumps, high inflation and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs”. The best he could offer was independence from Russian coal by the fall and near independence from oil by the end of the year. He couldn’t set a date for gasoline.
The danger is that the debate in Germany will become very polarized and entrenched. Ben Moll, an LSE professor and informal leader of the group that created the modelling, now proposes a compromise: an embargo on oil and a tax on gas, with measures to soften the blow for the poorest.
Virtually anything, he says, is better than Germany’s lack of response.