Sometimes a war crime is so egregious, and so fully reported, that it cannot but 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 of 1994, the Disappeared of Argentina under the junta in the 1980s or even the dispatches about bodies piled high in Bulgarian town squares by the US war reporter Januarius MacGahan in 1876 were all moments when the defense of ignorance has to be abandoned.
Even then the truth is more complicated and the west did not always act. Bill Clinton regretted he did not respond to the murders of Tutsis in 1994, saying he did not “fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which [Rwandans] were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Srebrenica was arguably only the culmination of ethnic cleansing that had been going on for three years. My Lai, revealed two years after the event, only provided further momentum to a pre-existing US anti-war movement. The scale of the British repression of the Mau Mau rebellion was only truly documented decades afterwards by a Harvard historian Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag.
So it is not a foregone conclusion that the pictures of Ukrainian civilians murdered with their hands tied will lead to towns such as Bucha becoming a spur for action when Nato and G7 ministers meet this week in Belgium. Measures such as suspension of Russia from the UN human rights council may have some symbolic value, but the big test is further European economic sanctions that may not just hit Russia but also the EU.
Russia is clearly nervous, drawing upon its Syrian playbook to claim the bodies strewn in 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 are fully respecting the old Goebbels Nazi provocation school and trying to shift the blame on Russia.”
On the basis that attack is the best form of defence, Moscow tried to call for an emergency meeting of the UN security council on Monday, but met resistance from the UK, the current president of the council. Russia’s diplomatic activity is less designed to sow doubt among westerners than to keep hold of the neutrals, such as China, India, Israel and even Turkey. It is also an act of political self-preservation. Studies of decades of Serbian denials of Srebrenica suggest no self-doubt can be countenanced.
For Volodymyr Zelenskiy, by contrast, this has to be a turning point, the moment to create a convulsion in Europe, and finally to pile so much pressure on Germany that it stops being the drag anchor of Europe about sanctions. From Ukraine’s perspective, if Germany shifts, the other countries also hesitating about tougher sanctions, such as Austria and Italy, would fall into line. Italy suggested as much.
For Zelenskiy, a European embargo on Russian energy, even if it were initially only oil, cannot come soon enough. Latest estimates suggest Russia will earn up to $320bn from oil and gas exports until the end of 2022, which is a third more than a year earlier. The Russian rouble rose on Monday, reversing earlier losses, and the Moex benchmark stock index climbed to levels last seen before Russia sent thousands of troops into Ukraine. These are not the signs of an economy close to collapse.
In an opening salvo, Zelenskiy invited the two architects of the now defunct 2014-15 Minsk peace process – Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – to come to Bucha to see how the road to appeasement turns into this horrific cul-de-sac.
His ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, has also stepped up his weeks-long assault on Russia’s friends in Germany. He said in one interview: “You see these atrocities and you 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 so that the toughest sanctions are put on the table? Chemical attacks, or what is it you are waiting for?”
Many say his unflinching criticism of Germany – his latest broadside was to claim there was a web of Russophile contacts around the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier – is ultimately counterproductive. But Melnyk cannot stop himself from naming those he regards as the guilty men. In Tagesspiegel, for instance, he named people connected to Steinmeier such as Jens Plötner, the foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and the state secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, Andreas Michaelis (the former German ambassador to the UK).
I have claimed 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 the political class is behind the public in what Germany and its economy is willing to sacrifice. Steinmeier has himself now issued a mea culpa, saying: “We clung to bridges that Russia no longer believed 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 anyone in Germany willing to defend the country’s 20-year conscious decision to make itself dependent on cheap Russian energy. That may have been an orthodoxy a year ago during the debates about Nord Stream 2, but now has become heresy. The Free Democratic party vice-chair Johannes Vogel wants the Bundestag to conduct an inquiry 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 had “yes, sort of created this monster”.
But the blame game about past misreadings of Putin is less important than what Germany is prepared to do now. So far, Berlin has persistently resisted the exclusion of Russian banks from the international payment system as well as a temporary ban on imports of Russian oil and gas. Pouyanné says it will take four to five years to end Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
Scholz, due in the UK later this week, insists Germany will back 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 damaging Germany more than Russia, Scholz argues, and he has rounded on a team of economic modellers for irresponsibly claiming a full embargo would lead only to a 3% fall in German GDP.
In taking up this position Scholz has the backing of Germany industry and finance.
The chief executive of Deutsche Bank, Christian Sewing, was the latest to warn about the consequences if Russian energy supplies were cut off. Already grappling with soaring inflation, Sewing said Germany would face “a further deterioration of the situation” if imports or deliveries of Russian oil and natural gas were stopped. “A clear recession in Germany would presumably be inevitable.” The chief executive of the chemical group BASF, Martin Brudermüller, pointed out that Russia provided 55% of German natural gas consumed, and 35% of its oil. “Do we want to destroy our entire economy with our eyes wide open?”
That view is reluctantly echoed by the economic affairs minister, Robert Habeck, who warns that an immediate import ban would lead to “supply bottlenecks next winter, economic slumps, high inflation and hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs”. The best he could offer was independence from Russian coal by the autumn and near independence from oil by the end of the year. He could set no date for gas.
The danger is the debate in Germany is becoming very polarized and entrenched. Ben Moll, an LSE professor and the informal head of the group that produced the modeling, is now suggesting a compromise: an embargo on oil and a tax on gas, with measures to cushion the blow for the poorest.
Virtually anything, he says, is better than Germany’s lack of response.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism