By John Erath
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation was founded over 40 years ago as a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing peace and security. The last six weeks have posed what, in many ways, is the greatest challenge of our existence. First, Russia used a direct threat of nuclear weapons to provide cover for its invasion of Ukraine, then deliberately targeted nuclear energy facilities. In recent days, the world has reacted with revulsion at the revelations of the atrocities inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Russian occupiers, including in the massacre at Bucha.
Reports of killings of civilians, forced disappearances and sexual violence have much of the world asking what to do about these violations of international law.
(At this point, Putin apologists and pro-Russian trolls are looking for the comments section to post various “…but what about…” statements along the lines of, “But what about Iraq? International law was violated there!” To save them the effort: Yes, bad things happened in Iraq, Vietnam and elsewhere. And no, in no way do any of these circumstances excuse the behavior of Russian forces.)
The outrages being committed daily by Russian forces, sadly, are part of a pattern of Russian behavior seen in Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Even following the Second World War, while the U.S. was formulating the Marshall Plan, Soviet forces were suppressing democracy and plundering Central Europe. This is a deliberate policy that is perceived in Moscow to have worked before. In Chechnya, for example, resistance was ultimately crushed by leveling Chechen towns and killing opposition leaders. Following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, potential opposition was crushed with reports of hundreds of human rights violations. What has occurred in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere is the result of a conscious policy of destruction and repression. The question, therefore, is not what to do about it, but how to avoid repetition.
The simple answer is that Russia follows the policy because it considers it successful, therefore in order to prevent it in the future, it must fail. Russia must experience consequences, through stronger sanctions, lost trade and accountability of those responsible. Such measures will underline the unacceptability of such actions and perhaps prompt hesitation before Putin orders the next city razed. In other words, there should be steps to deter such crimes from occurring in the future.
“Deterrence,” of course is an important word when considering nuclear risks and also applies when considering the nuclear threats Putin has made. If they are allowed to be perceived as successful, they will be repeated. A sensible policy would not be to react by making reciprocal threats, either of nuclear action or violence against Russians, but by raising the opportunity costs to violations of international norms.