Abhijit Bhattacharyya | Can Russians be tried for war crimes in Ukraine?
By DECCAN CHRONICLE | Abhijit Bhattacharyya
Amid the growing clamour in many countries, among politicians, opinion leaders and the media, that Russian President Putin and his “colluders” be put on trial before an international forum as “war criminals” who are responsible for “heinous crimes” against humanity in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, came the news earlier this week that the International Criminal Court based at The Hague was planning to open two war crimes cases against “several people” -- the first would be over Russia’s alleged abduction of Ukrainian children and second on Russia’s “unrelentingly” targeting civilian infrastructure, including water supplies and gas tanks. These cases, if pursued, would be the first international charges to be brought since the start of the war on February 24, 2022.
Many influential voices in the West want Moscow leadership to be brought to justice, like the Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg and the Japanese warlords in Tokyo after their defeat in the Second World War. But consider the pertinent points of a prominent European diplomat-politician of the 19th and early 20th century, Lord Arthur Ponsonby of Shulbrede. “We do not want war. The opposite party alone is guilty of war. The enemy is the face of the devil. We defend a noble cause, not our own interest. The enemy systematically commits cruelty; our mishaps are involuntary. The enemy uses forbidden weapons. We suffer small losses; those of the enemy are enormous. All artistes and intellectuals back our cause. Our cause is sacred. All those who doubt our propaganda are traitors”.
The privileged English aristocrat-politician knew better, having been in a vantage position to see his country’s imperial ventures across the globe. All acquired through combat and conquest, without facing any arbitration, jury, tribunal or court.
Hence, painting Russia as the sole villain in Moscow-Kyiv conflict compels one to bring up a few more points. No conflict of long duration with wide ramifications can burst overnight, without a long gestation period for building-up and delivering the dynamics of devastation.
The facts: late 2013 Ukraine saw a series protests across the country over the Kyiv government’s move to sign an “association agreement” with the European Union (EU) -- meant to fast-track Ukraine’s entry into this exclusive Western club, with an avowed goal of “eastern expansion”. This convinced Mr Putin and his associates that it was an anti-Russia move led by the successors of Napoleon and Hitler. What happened next was unpleasant. In 2014, Moscow took Crimea with ease, in a blunt and unethical way, replacing diplomacy with force.
Consequently, Russia incurred the West’s wrath over its avoidable action. That said, however, the West’s pre-2013-2014 plan of action also needs scrutiny because that stands as testimony to the “grand design” of the US and Europe to curb the role of Moscow in international affairs.
The disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991 suddenly opened an uninterrupted, unhindered vista for US and Europe to explore, expand and extend the Great Euro-Asian Heartland Game to its limit. Europe, traditionally cramped and quarrelling, saw a chance to repeat-play its war game (gaining territory through economic might and muscle) on a much bigger canvas and scale, thus negating the possible recurrence of two 20th century local wars escalating into world wars, engulfing all continents. Europe, with the active encouragement of the US, tried to reclaim all areas perceived to belong to it, from out of Moscow’s zone of influence and patriarchy as once-mighty Moscow got bogged down with its domestic chaos. A “world without Russia” was a tempting prospect for the US and its allies.
But Russia’s absence from the international scene, though a cause for rejoicing in the West, was not really desirable for durable peace and prosperity. From the 1990s, as the West had it easy, Russia steadfastly opposed Nato’s eastward expansion amid Yugoslavia’s destruction, the crises of Pristina and Kosovo and the unilateral US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In every step, Russia felt humiliated and isolated by the West, causing an unbridgeable gap between Moscow and the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Where did all this lead to? The consistent snubbing and humiliation of Russia for over 20 years by the smug coalition of the US, Nato and EU inflicted colossal damage, akin to that inflicted by the 1919 Versailles Treaty -- of which A.J.P. Taylor, arguably the greatest British historian of modern times, had said: “The peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start”. He explained: “I mean that the Germans didn’t regard it as a fair settlement, and many people in the Allied countries agreed with them”.
Taylor went further, in words that are still relevant today: “I have never seen any sense in question of war guilt or war innocence. In a world of sovereign states, each does the best it can for its own interests; and can be criticised at most for mistakes, not crimes.”
After 1991, US and EU were the victors, Moscow was the vanquished; just like Germany in 1919. The victors could obviously take all the decisions, but shouldn’t they have realised that a wounded and vanquished giant was bound to make a comeback one day to regain its Great Power status?
Why then should the US and EU be so surprised at Vladimir Putin’s attempts to restore what the Kremlin strongly believes to be its rightful place under the sun? Rightly or wrongly, just like Germany after its 1919 humiliation, it has gone all out to redo and repair lost ground, which it feels befits Moscow’s history, tradition and stature. Russia wants to be back as a nuclear superpower in all international institutions of war and peace. The size, shape, geography and location of Russia automatically make it a major Euro-Asian power. Amidst the ongoing Ukraine conflict, the preferable way, even now, will be a UN-initiated ceasefire to stop the loss of lives and livelihoods of millions in Europe, which has never had the ability to control the duration of devastation once it starts. The US and EU can take a call for the re-creation of wealth rather than push weapons into a war zone, which is bound to ruin the ecology, atmosphere, health and climate of all, and render meaningless the question on who should be declared the 21st century’s real war criminal.
The move by the US-Nato-EU triumvirate to take recourse to the International Criminal Court route to bring Russia to justice brazenly erodes the credibility, respect, honour and status of the 194-member United Nations. That bodes ill for the future. The ICC cannot step over the UN.