It is easy to lose sight of the manner in which the invasion of Ukraine has shifted from the supposed intention to neutralize military targets to the wholesale slaughter of civilians, the targeting of civil infrastructure and the desertification of the country.
But it is precisely the growing evidence of atrocities following one another in quick succession that helps to explain the shifting mood of the international community in the face of the Russian onslaught.
The images of hell now include the bombing of hospitals where pregnant women have been crushed under falling debris, the murder of children, the shelling of schools, and the use of artillery fire against large apartment blocks. In the nightmarish bombardment that Russia has visited upon Ukraine's civilian population, only two or three isolated accounts of Russian attacks against military targets seems to offer meager evidence for the Kremlin's stated intentions.
A major shift in tone from the West
US President Joe Biden might have offered the clearest sign of a shift in the perception of the conflict when he referred to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in clear terms: "I think he is a war criminal," Biden told reporters after remarks at the White House last week. On Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby doubled down on the accusation. "We certainly see clear evidence that Russian forces are committing war crimes and we are helping with the collecting of evidence of that," Kirby told a news briefing on Monday. That evening, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, also said at the start of a meeting of EU foreign ministers: "What's happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody."
Biden's statement — which came a few hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly addressed US Congress and showed his audience footage of the carnage — did not merely change the nature of the conversation, but may well have signaled a major shift in the way that the White House sees its own responsibilities.
Last week, retired US Army General Ben Hodges spoke to DW's Conflict Zone and laid out his measured case for intervention. "What's happening in Ukraine is not limited to Ukraine — and I don't mean a stray missile going over the border. I'm talking about what Putin is doing, what is the impact on Europe, stability and security in Europe ... I think NATO has to take a broader view of this."
But the reasons are not merely geostrategic. Hodges' statements underline the strong moral case to confront Putin's threats. In the general's estimation, the current state of affairs in Ukraine is similar to the one in which Western nations failed to protect civilians in previous conflicts.
"European troops under a United Nations mandate stood outside the city, while Republika Srpska forces murdered 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. I do not want us to be a part of something like that again."
Echoing other military figures including US General Barry McCaffrey, who last week on NBC cited strong reasons to enter the war, Hodges believes the West might be approaching a moment at which a forceful response becomes unavoidable.
Yet the legal thresholds for any third country to enter the conflict in Ukraine are virtually unreachable. It is only the UN Security Council (UNSC) that would be able to authorize the use of force. But given the fact that Russia, as a permanent member of the UNSC, not only has veto power but also presides over the body, there is simply no chance of that happening.
Russian failures, brutality very telling
The Russian advance has offered a glimpse not merely of the lengths to which the Kremlin is willing to go to subjugate a country and people that it sees as the rightful clients of its own sphere of influence, it has also shown the limits of its capacity to do so.
Reports on the state of the Russian military misadventure include large numbers of Russian personnel killed, entire columns of tanks wiped out, aircraft and missiles downed by Ukrainian forces and an army generally incapable of fulfilling the Kremlin's stated mission to take over Ukraine and replace its government. A very aggressive Ukrainian resistance has forestalled Russian advance across much of the country.
But the disarray and military weakness of Russia hides the more ominous threat of opening a much more destructive front with the potential deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. When asked in Congress a few weeks ago if this was a possibility, Fiona Hill, a longtime expert and advisor to the American government on Russian affairs, said that indeed Putin would make use of those tools at his disposal if he found himself to need them.
But while not denying Hill's view, both McCaffrey, who also served as deputy US representative to NATO, and Hodges, the former commander of US Army forces in Europe, see the possibility as a very unlikely one. "I think that we are overreacting to Russian threats about expansion of the war, about nuclear weapons. I don't believe that the Kremlin will use a nuclear weapon," Hodges told Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian.
NATO, EU membership hang in the balance
Meanwhile the Ukrainian government continues to negotiate a cease-fire with the Russian government and a potential de-escalation. Ukraine has, in principle, desisted from further pursuing membership in NATO, which is a major shift in position given that it would require a modification of its Constitution, which was amended in 2019 to include the express aspiration to join NATO and attain EU membership.
But even if a cease-fire were in the cards, the broader political question seems to be hiding just beyond. What future geopolitical order can be established with a Russian government escaping investigation and penalties for the killing of civilians, the destruction of entire cities and the indiscriminate violation of international human rights law? And what kind of negotiation or agreement could be reached with a government that has systematically lied about its intentions, betrayed trust placed in it by the international community and violated previous agreements?
What will be expected from Russia is not merely a cease-fire and de-escalation, but the repayment for reconstruction of a country that has seen much of its infrastructure, industrial complex, public assets and services destroyed by the wanton brutality of the advancing army in an unprovoked war. But perhaps more importantly, the bodies of civilians that the Russians have targeted — at least according to preliminary reports — will require redress, and that means investigations and trials for war crimes. This is precisely what International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan is investigating. And as international human rights lawyer Bill Bowring tells DW, it could indeed mean the indictment of Putin on war crimes charges.