Bucha’s atrocities are not Russia’s first. They must be the last

Clara Ferreira Marques
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
A man gestures at a mass grave in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 3, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

It’s hard to read the reports emerging from Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs, and nearly impossible to look at the images. Retreating Russian soldiers have left evidence of unthinkable brutality. Ordinary men and women lie dead on the street, in the dark mud and dirt, many shot, some with hands tied behind their back. People were found still clutching shopping bags, one splayed next to a tangled bicycle. There are mass graves, and there’s evidence of torture. Ukrainian authorities say the bodies of 410 civilians have been recovered from towns around the capital.

Even without knowing precisely what happened, it’s clear that Bucha and incidents like it are an outrage: war crimes of hideous proportions. But this should not come as a shock. Russian forces have used just such tactics before, and will do so again — unless Europe, the U.S. and other allied nations move swiftly on the back of this horror. They need to make the cost of this war not just steep for Russia, whose economy has begun to stabilize since massive sanctions were first imposed, but intolerable. And yes, that means advancing beyond efforts to close loopholes for banks and technology, and tackling, at last, Russian oil and gas exports.

More:Russia faces growing outrage over deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine

More:Ukraine accuses Moscow of forcibly taking civilians to Russia

More:‘The only thing we’re really afraid of is that the other side has no principles’

Naysayers in Brussels and elsewhere are right to fear the impact of such measures on consumers at home. There would be an inflationary shock and a hit to growth in Europe. But there is no credible option that comes at zero cost. And Western leaders should remember that this is not about avenging Bucha or any other single town — it’s about preventing the many other atrocities that Russian forces, ill-disciplined and dealing with citizens dehumanized by Kremlin propaganda, will undoubtedly commit. Inaction costs lives and endangers us all.

It’s crucial to understand that what we are seeing in the wake of the Russian withdrawal is more than the consequence of war, because even in war, there are basic rules. Here, Ukraine has accused Russian soldiers of killing unarmed civilians, and evidence seen by journalists and human rights activists supports that. Human Rights Watch says it has documented deliberate cruelty and violence in occupied areas, including rape, summary execution, looting and more. In Bucha, it found one instance where soldiers forced men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their t-shirts over their faces, and shot one of them in the back of the head.

For long-time Russia-watchers this will seem horribly familiar, and that’s because it is. Moscow used similar tactics in Chechnya, particularly during the second war that began on Vladimir Putin’s watch in 1999, when arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and summary executions were used to flush out rebels and cow the local population. Undefended towns and villages were assaulted with no military justification. What happened in Bucha over the past weeks happened in towns outside Grozny in early 2000, when Human Rights Watch and other groups documented pillaging, extortion, rape, and reported that civilians were forced out of hiding and summarily shot at close range. Then, the killings, like those in Bucha, were met with Kremlin denials.

Ukraine is not Chechnya. This is an independent country of 44 million, not a rebel province where Russia was supposedly fighting Islamic extremists. But the comparison matters because in Chechnya terror became a legitimate tactic, woven into strategy — these were not an isolated incidents of excess. How? In large part because official Russian rhetoric around Chechnya associated the local population with combatants, and combatants with terrorists, therefore everyone became a legitimate target.

Ukrainians, resisting far more than Russia expected, appear to have been labeled in just the same way. Nazism, Moscow’s propagandists have argued to explain their slow progress, has penetrated deep into Ukrainian society, and so it needs to be “cleansed.”

All of this should galvanize Western leaders and encourage them to act fast. Russia has reacted with familiar whataboutism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already given a rousing speech berating “concentrated evil,” appealing directly in Russian to the mothers of Moscow’s soldiers and to the country’s leaders, enumerating the horrors: “This is how the Russian state will be perceived. This is your image now. Your culture and your humanity died with the Ukrainian men and women you came for.”

But what will the West do? It’s clear Russia can inflict plenty of damage, even without chemical weapons. These tactics do not deliver victory, but can sow unthinkable destruction. Every part of occupied Ukraine is unsafe. It’s also apparent that the current set of sanctions, while extensive, will not stop the war fast enough, nor will other measures currently on the table, strengthening existing actions — with export controls on technology and applying more restrictions for banks — and expanding the list of sanctioned individuals. Russia’s economy is badly bruised, but it has adjusted, and the central bank is still able to provide support.

Going after oil and gas — and the West together still buys the largest share of what Russia produces — would be a much tougher blow, battering Moscow’s finances and its ability to withstand other sanctions already in place. Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, estimated over the weekend that an energy embargo would wipe out Russia’s current account surplus and hit its fiscal position. Any such action, to be clear, will be painful for the West too, particularly Europe, where curtailing Russian gas will require significant social support to help the poorest cope. But it can be done — high prices dampen demand, and a war in Europe is not exactly without cost.

And China? There the picture is predictably complicated. It’s unlikely that humanitarian concerns will push Beijing off the fence, not least because its own citizens will not see the footage shocking viewers elsewhere. But the impact of these horrors on inflation and global growth, at a time when Beijing is dealing with significant COVID-19 disarray at home, just might.

— Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.