The Real Lesson of Bucha | Opinion

Based on the grisly, ghastly images coming out of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, one can make only one conclusion: Russian troops have committed war crimes Europe hasn't seen since the war in Kosovo nearly a quarter of a century ago. Pictures of dozens of Ukrainian civilians dumped into mass graves, bodies lying on the street with their hands tied behind their backs and accounts of Russian forces stealing, assaulting and callously shooting people in their cars are proliferating across newspapers, magazines and television screens. And this is in addition to the five weeks of indiscriminate rocket and artillery fire in residential areas; Mariupol, a city straddling the Azov Sea, is for all intents wiped out.

But it was the events in Bucha that have truly shocked the conscience. If the European Union (EU) was increasingly divided about whether to sanction Russian energy sources before the atrocities were published on the front-pages, an outright ban on Russian oil and gas—or at least reduced purchases—is now more likely. Speaking on French radio this week, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted sanctions on Russian energy were now an imperative. Germany, a country that received more than half of its natural gas from Russia last year, is now talking about taking aim at Moscow's energy sources, its biggest cash cow (the EU buys approximately $1 billion of Russian gas, oil and coal a day). The Biden administration's sanctions plans were sped up by the war crimes in Bucha, leading the White House to freeze the assets of Russia's largest public and private bank. Washington is also pushing for Russia to be suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council. President Joe Biden wants a war crimes trial against Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who the president has alternatively labeled "a killer," "a butcher" and "a war criminal."

Right now, the top priority for the U.S. and its European allies is centered on holding Russia accountable for the horrific actions of its soldiers. This is a sympathetic response to a disgusting event more often associated with Europe in the 20th century, not the 21st. But in the final analysis, last weekend's horrible pictures of dead civilians on the side of the road are a powerful reminder about why the war needs to end as soon as possible—even if ending it requires the Ukrainian government to cede some of its territory. The crimes executed on the edges of Ukraine's capital city are a sharp, painful kick in the shin, a disturbing omen of what's to come if the conflict proceeds into a costly battle of attrition.

In general, war tends to favor hardline elements of government and society. Those prone to compromise and concession can be marginalized, ignored, or deemed stupendously naïve by others interested in nothing short of a total, complete and unqualified victory. Only when the human, material and economic costs of warfare exceed the benefits of a distant win on the battlefield do combatants recognize the absurdity of pursuing a total victory. Peace talks, then, become more palpable. Thankfully, Russia and Ukraine sowed a diplomatic path relatively early in the conflict, the latest round occurring in-person last week in Istanbul.

Members of the Ukrainian military
Members of the Ukrainian military stand by a destroyed vehicle on April 6, 2022, in Bucha, Ukraine. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Unfortunately, those talks could prove to be even more difficult now than they were several days ago. Despicable acts of brutality in the field have a tendency to further harden the hardliners and turn those previously interested in a diplomatic middle-ground into skeptics or cynics. The politics surrounding peace are more difficult to navigate when the enemy is wantonly killing civilians in the most gruesome ways imaginable, since no politician or leader wants to be depicted as weak-kneed or caving into pressure. One doesn't need to look too far to find evidence of this phenomenon; visiting Bucha after Russian forces withdrew, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated how difficult it was "to negotiate when you see what they [Russian troops] have done here."

Negotiate, however, is exactly what needs to happen. This isn't about giving the Russian military a pass on accountability or saving Putin from his own poor judgment. The objective is to terminate the conflict earlier than later, lest more atrocities against innocent men, women and children are perpetrated in the future. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the longer the fighting goes on, the more likely the world will bear witness to scenes reminiscent of Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and every other Ukrainian city experiencing Russian missile attacks.

After news of the massacres in Bucha circulated, Retired Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, tweeted that, "We need to talk about winning, not ending," the war in Ukraine. Former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen expressed a similar sentiment days earlier, writing that Washington should help Ukraine prevail over the Russian military rather than just provide Kyiv with weapons for self-defense.

Yet neither of them bothered to acknowledge the price Ukraine itself would have to pay in pursuit of an outright military victory—assuming such a victory is possible against an adversary with more reservists, tanks and aircraft. And that price would include more Ukrainian civilian casualties, more cities damaged or destroyed, a deeper economic catastrophe (Ukraine's economy is projected to decrease by 46 percent this year) and yes, more Buchas.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.