There is no red line in Russia’s attack on Ukraine – no military action so cruel, illegal or devastating that it will turn the world’s moral indignation into licence for direct military intervention or genuinely crippling sanctions. Yet each day, the world gets a new report of the alleged horrors of Russian occupation – of women raped in front of their children or of Russian troops firing on Ukrainians standing in a bread line – and each time, someone, somewhere, declares it to be a turning point in the war.
It never is. There won’t be. The grim reality is that the red line sits along the border between Poland and Ukraine, and as long as Russia’s war crimes are carried out a few kilometres east of the Polish town of Medyka, they will be permitted to continue.
The West will not make the same mistake U.S. president Barack Obama did in 2012, when he declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria to be a “red line” that would activate U.S. intervention. The Putin-backed Assad regime tested that threat a few years later, and found that Mr. Obama’s red line was drawn with invisible ink.
So all will be tolerated. And Russian President Vladimir Putin knows it.
The world watched him order the invasion of Chechnya in 1999 and destroy the city of Grozny the way Russia has now destroyed Mariupol: cutting off vital supplies, indiscriminately bombing and leaving residents to slowly starve to death. When Mr. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 – using cluster munitions in civilian areas just like Russian troops are reportedly now doing in Kharkiv and elsewhere – the world shrugged. His annexation of Crimea in 2014 resulted in some economic sanctions, but Germany was happy to trudge along with plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline all the same, right up until just a couple days before Mr. Putin again invaded Ukraine this year.
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When Russian and Syrian forces bombed hospitals and humanitarian corridors in regions of Syria under siege, just as Russia is doing now, the West merely clucked its tongue in disapproval. When Syria used chemical weapons on civilians and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played defence, claiming that the chemical attack was staged by foreign agents (which should now sound familiar), the U.S. pretended no one heard Mr. Obama’s previous promise to intervene. Russia under Mr. Putin has been accused, with evidence, of shooting a passenger plane out of the sky, carrying out assassinations on German and British soil, meddling in foreign elections, and slaughtering untold innocent civilians – and he has suffered few enduring or significant repercussions. So naturally, Mr. Putin would think he could get away with invading a sovereign territory, or even rewarding his soldiers for committing the most heinous crimes. He hasn’t crossed the line that matters, and that line has nothing to do with the scale or severity of his cruelty.
In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was asked, in the context of what he has seen in Bucha and elsewhere in his country, if he thinks the world actually means it when they say “never again” – a phrase coined in the aftermath of the Holocaust to imply that people will never again stand idly by when a population is forcibly relocated, tortured and killed. (Never mind that just a few months ago, the Olympics were held in a country that is forcibly relocating and committing genocide against its minority population, and much of the world tuned in and remarked on how pretty the figure skaters’ dresses were.) Mr. Zelensky was tactful in his response: “I don’t believe the world after we’ve seen what’s going on in Ukraine” he said. “We don’t believe the words.”
He shouldn’t. There is about 75 years’ worth of evidence that “never again” is merely an empty slogan, and its influence pales in comparison to legitimate concerns about military escalation, nuclear threats and Europe’s dependence on Russian oil. Indeed, anyone who suggests that there is an easy or uncomplicated way for foreign powers to intervene when a population is being ravaged as Ukraine’s is now, is lying about the unintended consequences of military intervention. But anyone who suggests that the post-Second World War order would not permit the systematic slaughter of innocent civilians is lying, too. Today’s reality is that Russia can get away with bombing hospitals and train stations, just as long as Mr. Putin stays within the geographic lines. That would be the only turning point in this war. Short of that, we will cluck our tongues, and hope that someone, somewhere, does something.
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