Apr 7, 2022

War crimes in Ukraine.

War crimes in Ukraine.

Also, a preview of my piece for tomorrow.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're covering the alleged war crimes in Bucha. Plus, a question about European countries paying for Russian gas in rubles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Image: The Presidential Press and Information Office
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Image: The Presidential Press and Information Office

See you tomorrow...

After a full two days of back and forth, and some more dialogue with readers about Tuesday's edition on Disney, I've decided to publish one of our classic reader response issues in tomorrow's Friday edition. The last time I did this was when I responded to a slew of reader feedback about "my take" on Joe Rogan. In that issue, I was mostly aligning myself with "the right," and a lot of the folks upset were on “the left.” Tomorrow, it'll be the opposite. This Disney issue drew a similar level of negative feedback as the Rogan piece did, including some folks who let me know they were unsubscribing, so I’m eager to address those criticisms.

I've also made the decision to send tomorrow's Friday edition to our full mailing list rather than only to paying subscribers. But, as always, I'd like to remind everyone that Friday editions are usually for paying subscribers only. So if you want to receive them more regularly, you can subscribe. With no investors and no advertisers, subscriptions and donations are the only way this newsletter makes money. Please support our work.


Quick hits.

  1. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is expected to be confirmed this afternoon as the next justice to join the Supreme Court. Jackson will replace Stephen Breyer with the support of three Senate Republicans (Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins) and all 50 Democrats. (The confirmation)
  2. The Senate passed a bipartisan deal on a 100-0 vote to strip Russia and Belarus of their favored nation trading status. (The vote)
  3. The House approved a criminal contempt referral to the Justice Department against two former top Trump aides for ignoring subpoenas: Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino. (The charges)
  4. China warned on Thursday that it would take strong measures if U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) visited Taiwan, which she plans to do next week. (The warning)
  5. On Friday, a federal judge agreed with a January 6 defendant that the police let him into the Capitol building, the first acquittal connected to charges in the rioting from that day. (The acquittal)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The alleged Russian war crimes in Bucha. Over the last two weeks, a series of news reports broke about the town of Bucha, which sits in the suburbs of Kyiv (Ukraine's capital). Russian forces had occupied the suburb for weeks, but withdrew last week. Then Ukrainian officials announced they had discovered evidence of war crimes. Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said some 280 people were buried in mass graves and the streets were strewn with dead civilians.

The Associated Press said its reporters saw dozens of bodies in various spots around Bucha. The New York Times, using on-the-ground reporting and satellite images, documented dozens of civilian dead left in the streets. Some, according to a coroner The Times interviewed who presented them with images of the dead, had their hands tied and had been shot at close range.

On Sunday, more bodies were discovered across Bucha, found "dead in yards and on the roads amid mounting evidence that civilians had been killed purposely and indiscriminately," The Times said.

President Joe Biden responded to the reports, and the claims from Ukrainian officials, by calling for Vladimir Putin to be tried for war crimes and pledging more sanctions. He then announced new sanctions on Russia's largest financial institutions and several people tied to the Kremlin, including Putin's two adult daughters. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Russia’s actions “genocide.”

“When we murder wantonly innocent civilians because of who they are, whether it be their religion, their race, their nationality — that is genocide. And Mr. Putin is guilty of it,” he said on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, Russia has denied the allegations, saying the videos and photos were fraudulent, and claiming the images were staged by actors after Russian forces vacated the town. Those claims were undercut by the satellite images showing the civilian bodies had been in the streets for weeks — and left there — even while Russian forces still occupied the area.

The United States has joined more than 40 countries who intend to investigate the potential war crimes, and the United Nations Human Rights Council has launched an inquiry as well. For decades, the international community has looked to the Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Convention on how to define and prosecute war crimes. The Geneva Convention prohibits crimes against humanity, including intentionally killing civilians, torture, sexual violence and wanton destruction of property.

But prosecuting those crimes is difficult, and experts believe the odds of any real punishment for Putin or his military leaders are slim. Opinions on this issue do not break down along partisan lines, so today we are just going to share some opinions and perspectives on a few different elements of this story, including how the U.S. should respond, whether Putin is really weakened, and whether these alleged war crimes can actually be prosecuted.


Opinions.

The New York Times editorial board said to document the war crimes now, so the evidence can be used later.

“It may appear unduly legalistic to parse evidence or to question witnesses as countless civilians cower in their homes hoping against hope that Russian shells don’t hit their apartment buildings,” The Times said. “The very notion that warfare can have rules, suggesting that there are correct ways to inflict death and destruction on an enemy, is difficult to grasp, and prosecuting commanders carries the risk of appearing as victor’s justice…

“Yet the world has also identified crimes that are unacceptable even in the fog of battle,” the board wrote. “Objectively gathering and documenting evidence is a powerful way to cut through the muck and preserve the possibility that someone might someday be held accountable. It holds out the possibility, however slim, that someday a judge will declare the orders to fire on a village or hospital illegal and that that legal judgment might one day serve as a deterrent in the next war. War crime investigations are a powerful political tool that can be used to underscore the dignity of victims and the lawlessness of the invaders.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested that it may be better strategically to focus on prosecuting people other than Putin, and to have Europe lead the way.

“Survivors say that Ukrainian officials who refused to cooperate with Russians occupying their towns were shot,” the board wrote. “Russians reportedly kidnapped the mayor of the village of Motyzhyn on March 23, along with her husband and son, and all three bodies were discovered in a well on Saturday. Graves in Bucha hold dozens of bodies of civilian non-combatants, and aerial photos show evidence from before the Russian departure from Bucha. These are all clear violations of the laws of war as understood by longtime custom.

“A war crimes investigation needn’t start with Mr. Putin, and it might be better if it didn’t. The war is continuing, and the impact might be more significant on Russian morale if Russian officers know they will be held accountable,” it added. “Start at the top with Sergei Shoigu, the Army general who has been minister of defense for a decade. Then move down through the ranks of officers who have served in Ukraine, starting with those who commanded troops in the regions where war crimes were committed... This may also be a prosecution better done by Europeans than by the U.S. They are the people most acutely threatened by the war, and Mr. Putin would only be too happy to turn this into a Russo-U.S. fight.”

Mark Lawrence Schrad argued that — far from a pending uprising — Russia, its oligarchs, and its people are responding to Western sanctions and Russian isolation by rallying around Putin, not turning on him.

"Rather than fracturing the Kremlin into squabbling factionalism, or estranging the Russian state from society—Putin’s war so far has had the opposite effect: consolidating and strengthening the regime," Schrad wrote. "In this context, the Russian response to the accusations of genocide in Ukraine have been predictable: It is all a Western “fake” meant to further impugn the dignity of Russia and its leader. Pro-Russian social media accounts have claimed that the corpses are either fake, or are actors, or were killed after the Russians left. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed “not a single local resident has suffered any violent action” while Bucha was under Russian control.

“These are all claims that have been easily debunked,” he said. “By parroting the official line of the Foreign Affairs Ministry that it could not have been Russia that committed such atrocities, but rather the United States staging a ‘provocation,’ Kremlin state-run media only reinforces and retrenches the us-against-the-world narrative already widely accepted among the Russian people. Unfortunately, revelations of massacres in Bucha and beyond—and purported stepped-up Western sanctions—are unlikely to lead to Putin’s ouster. Like everything else we’ve seen so far in this war, Putin’s brand of autocracy is more likely than not to be able to use these allegations of atrocities to further galvanize Russian public opinion against the West and further entrench Putin in power.”

In MSNBC, Ja'han Jones said it will be hard to prosecute these crimes.

"[Biden] once again called Putin a ‘war criminal’ but noted that more information will be needed to formally make the case,” Jones said. “Biden's hedge seemed to acknowledge the reality of the situation: Holding top officials accountable for war crimes, let alone Putin, will be difficult. Gregory Gordon, a former war crimes prosecutor and genocide expert, explained the immense burden of proving a war crimes suspect's guilt. 'It is extremely difficult to make these cases,' Gordon said. 'You have to have corroborating evidence. You have to have solid witness testimony. You have to have good documentation. And those are the things that I hope the investigators who are being sent [to Ukraine] now are taking care of.'

“After Joy [Reid] noted that African leaders have been among those most frequently charged and convicted of war crimes, Gordon attributed the disparity to ‘realpolitik,’ the word used to describe politics focused on practical options — not ethical or moral ones," Jones said. "In other words: International courts have managed to convict African officials (and others) for war crimes because they’ve had the means to apprehend these leaders and bring them to trial. Doing that can be harrowing in countries that haven't deposed their rulers.”

In Spectator, Gary Anderson said Putin has destroyed his own reputation.

“If Kyiv and other major cities had fallen quickly and a Russian puppet regime had been installed, Putin would have appeared to be the genius that Donald Trump thought he was,” Anderson wrote. “It soon became apparent that the Red Army is a hollow shell with unwilling privates being led by incompetent generals, underperforming equipment, and a supreme leader who had no plan B. Putin’s reputation is now in tatters. He is isolated from the international community; his domestic enemies in the military, the intelligence services, and the oligarch elites are reportedly beginning to smell blood in the water.

“Even if he isn’t replaced, Putin has had the worst thing an authoritarian can experience happen to him,” he wrote. “His reputation is — to put it kindly — much diminished with rife rumors that he doesn’t know much about what is really going on beyond his inner circle. Many of the soldiers who were supposed to march in the victorious post-Ukraine parade are dead in the mud around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol. In addition, no nation in its right mind will buy the junk that Russian military equipment has turned out to be.”


My take.

This morning, I went back and read my piece on the day this invasion started:

War is a terrible, tragic thing. For Russia, the brunt of this war will fall onto the shoulders of young soldiers — baby faced "men" who are 17 or 18, 19 or 20, who will go die for something they almost certainly don’t understand. In Ukraine, it will be all hands on deck. Fathers, mothers, teenagers and grandparents will stand side by side with their military. They will take up arms and fight and many of them will die violent deaths. This will be the result of Putin's decision to invade, based on the absurd notion that a nation of 40 million free Ukrainians belongs to him.

It's safe to say my worst fears have come to fruition. This war has turned into everything I imagined it would, but worse. It hasn't been the worst case scenario, to be sure: Fighting has not spilled into neighboring countries, there have been no nuclear or chemical weapon attacks, and Ukraine did not fall in a matter of days. But the images from the ground are haunting, worse than I could have even conjured up. Babies, children, pregnant women, civilians and the elderly are being killed in their homes and in hospitals and schools. The Russian military has bombed theaters and civilian centers, and journalists on the ground have documented the public executions I warned could happen if this army ever took over Kyiv. Instead of Zelensky, though, it’s ordinary citizens being killed in the streets, including a small-town mayor and her family.

It's important, of course, to acknowledge the difficulty in getting reliable information in the fog of war. However unlikely it is that any of these crimes were "staged," it is impossible to know all the details at this point. Some reports have suggested Ukrainian soldiers are committing atrocities of their own, and some allegations of war crimes may be overstated or later disproven. And the entire concept of civilians being killed is complicated by the fact that many Ukrainian civilians are taking up arms in the fight. The only way to know with any certainty will be through a thorough investigation.

It is also true that the information we get in real time is hard to take at face value. However more kindly you may judge their intentions, Ukrainian and U.S. officials are disseminating what could be described as wartime propaganda, whether it is morale-boosting updates or outright lies about chemical weapons as a means for deterrence:

It's also okay to allow space for the idea that not all Russian soldiers are the same. Some are clearly shaken teenagers who now realize they were misled about their mission. In other cases, Ukrainians on the ground have painted a much different picture of the blood-lusting savages purportedly taking over their cities. One 60-year-old retired Ukrainian teacher told The New York Times she had no negative experiences with the enlisted Russian soldiers who patrolled Bucha, so much so that she believed they were being ordered to be polite and share their meal rations. “They helped us carry bags,” she told the paper.

That this reporting can co-exist with coverage of war crimes from the same news outlets should be a reminder that none of those complicating factors necessarily "disprove" the horror. They can co-exist. These facts shouldn’t undercut the evidence we have in front of us. Journalists and civilians are risking their lives on the ground to document the targeting of civilians, and the least we can do is take that information seriously. If you can stomach the videos or photographs, you'll be left with little doubt as to what’s happening.

Bearing in mind that the situation is complicated, some Russian claims that have gone viral are easily disproved. One video purports to show a corpse on the ground moving its arm as a camera films the scene. But when the video is slowed down you can see clearly that it's actually a raindrop hitting the lens and distorting the image. This kind of propaganda is dominating the internet, and it's important to navigate it carefully.

It's also important to continue to center on what we do know. We have witness interviews, satellite images, videos, audio and reporting from seasoned war journalists that all tell a consistent story. Russia's military is intentionally targeting civilian areas, shooting innocents in the street, kidnapping officials and indiscriminately killing non-combatants. The alleged atrocities that we have less evidence for — but do have witness testimony of — include torture and rape.

Will Putin be prosecuted? I don't see any reason to believe he'll ever pay any price, even a political one. But there is no option but to try. War crimes prosecutions could still target the commanders, generals and soldiers we can find and hold to account. Anything less would be a disservice to the survivors and to the people who have risked their lives to warn the world about what is happening.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Last week the media made a lot of headlines about Russia requiring payment for gas in rubles instead of euros, even that it might partially shut down the German economy etc.  The deadline for this set by Putin was April 1, and yet since the last couple days of March I have seen no coverage about whether the Germans or the Russians caved. What gives?

— Richard, St. Louis, Missouri

Tangle: So far, they haven't caved. For those not keeping up with this story, the idea is that Russia is trying to force European countries into paying for their gasoline in rubles, not euros, in order to boost the Russian currency. This is a response to European Union sanctions against Russia.

Europe has, so far, refused. They said they won't abide by the demand because the contractual agreement for the gas calls for it to be paid in euros. But yesterday, Hungary’s President Viktor Orban broke with the EU, saying that — if asked — he'd pay for the fuel in rubles. “We have no difficulty at all paying in rubles,” Orban told reporters on Wednesday. “So if the Russians ask for it, we’ll pay in rubles.”

As for Russia, I did not see anything about an April 1 deadline. However, even in the immediate aftermath of the demand, Russia seemed to soften its stance. In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week, Putin said explicitly that European companies could continue paying for gas supplies in euros or dollars. This might have been a reaction to the market turmoil from the initial demand but, whatever the case, I don't know that this is a legitimate threat (or that it is one the EU will cave on). I suspect, all things considered, the EU will continue to pay for its gas in euros or dollars.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Student absenteeism is crushing schools across the nation, Axios reports. Absenteeism has surged during the pandemic, introducing another pandemic-era challenge for teachers to overcome. More than half of Los Angeles Unified students — over 200,000 children — have missed at least 9% of the year. In New York City, chronic absenteeism rose from 26% to 40%. In Ohio, it's up from 11% to 24%. The data have caused fear that the pandemic will not just leave students behind who spent more than a year in remote learning, but will continue to impact students who — even after a return to in-person classes — are missing school at much higher rates.


Numbers.

  • 15,000. The number of arrests that stemmed from antiwar protests in Russia when the war broke out.
  • 69%. Vladimir Putin's approval rating in January, according to the independent pollster Levada.
  • 83%. Vladimir Putin's approval rating now, according to that same pollster.
  • 81%. The percentage of Russians who support the "special military operation" in Ukraine.
  • 1,417. The number of civilians killed in Ukraine, according to an April 3 count from the United Nations, including 293 men, 201 women, 22 girls, and 40 boys, as well as 59 children and 802 adults whose sex is yet unknown.

Have a nice day.

A European man who won the 200 million euro lottery says he is donating nearly the entire sum to a foundation he created to preserve the environment. The Frenchman says he is forgoing luxury cars and fancy houses, instead settling for "the protection and revitalization of forests, the preservation and regeneration of biodiversity and the support of family caregivers." In fact, the winner — who is remaining anonymous — said he only played the jackpots for the singular purpose of donating the money to this cause. You can read about the story here.


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