The images emerging from the Bucha region in Kiev over the weekend have provoked horror, anger, and, of course, furious Russian denials. What seems increasingly beyond doubt, however, is that large numbers of people have been shot in towns that were once occupied by the retreating Russian Army. Russia denies involvement, but it cannot deny that it occupied these towns until the last few days.
But of course, and sickening as it is to cast these things in such terms, the images and videos and stories emerging from the towns and villages north of Kiev do amount to a propaganda coup for the Ukrainians, on two fronts.
The first has nothing to do with civilian deaths, and everything to do with the countless images of burned and destroyed Russian tanks and equipment, which makes it obvious that the Russians didn’t just lose the battle of Kiev – they took an absolute pasting. More on the importance of that below.
And on the second front, obviously, horrifying images like these have a value to the Ukrainians in the information war that is beyond price.
But it is not only Ukrainians who are recording them. This is a dutch journalist in Bucha:
Covering this war for over a month now, but the pictures I had to process this weekend have been the most horrowing so far. We show edits to our viewers, because this is the true face of this war. Calls for a new Nuremberg trial are getting louder #vrtnws #bucha #UkraineWarCrimes pic.twitter.com/vedq4Kx4m7
— Tom Van de Weghe (@tomvandeweghe) April 3, 2022
Russia’s last remaining trump card with the west is European dependence on Russian Gas. Specifically, German dependence on it.
Germany, for reasons we are all aware of, has a particular sensitivity to the sight of mass graves and mass executions of civilians, particularly on Ukrainian soil.
Were Germany and other European countries to turn off those taps altogether, Russia would be entirely at the mercy of China and India and countries aligned to those two powers for export revenues. And while the Chinese and Indians might have no real ideological objection to Russia, neither are they incentivised to give the Russians a good deal. If they buy Russian gas, it will be at knock down prices. One consequence of these images will be a ramping up of pressure on Germany – from within and without – to find another gas supplier.
But that’s not all.
After this weekend, there is likely going to be another uptick in the supply of western arms and materiels to Ukraine. And the images from Bucha help to drive that in two ways. First: They demonstrate that those arms are necessary to defend Ukrainian civilians. The images re-cast the war as not simply a battle over territory or sovereignty, but a war to protect innocent Ukrainians from a campaign of Russian murder. Politicians who were previously outraged about Russian territorial aggression can now re-cast that as outrage about Russian murders of innocent people.
But second, and perhaps overlooked: The images of burning Russian vehicles demonstrate that the weapons will not go to waste.
The risk for Ukraine in this war was always that after a few weeks of brave defence, the Russians would begin a slow advance, and the Ukrainians would lose town after town. The more inevitable the outcome looked, the more the west would nod its head in sympathy and quietly make space for an accommodation with the Kremlin when it was all over.
Now, however, the Ukrainians have proved that they can not just hold the Russians off, but push them back – and inflict massive losses on Russia in the process. “Give us more weapons”, they say, “and we can win”.
That’s a powerful message to European Capitals, and Washington. And one that will be amplified by both the western public, and the media, for good reasons, and the arms industry, for less noble ones.
Meanwhile, fear of Putin in the west is likely to have receded. That is the other major consequence of how this conflict has unfolded: The idea of Russia sweeping through the Balkans and over-running Poland in a few weeks will have completely disappeared. The Russian Army has proved itself something of a paper tiger. If it cannot subdue Ukraine, what chance does it have against the American Military, deployed in a conventional European War?
There is a third consequence, too: The events in Bucha, whatever the truth of them, make a negotiated peace on Russia’s terms much less likely, without military victory. How, for example, can President Zelenskyy now shake hands with Putin on a peace deal that surrenders part of the country, without being driven from office as a traitor by his own people?
Putin, too, cannot afford a peace deal that does not gain at least a fig leaf for Russia. The chances of such a deal have become more remote.
All of these indicators point in the same direction: This war will not, now, end quickly. It will become focused in the east of Ukraine, and it may become bloody and merciless. Ukraine is poorer, and has fewer tanks. But it now has staunch western support, in both military and finance, while Russia is bound by sanctions.
Many more young Russians and Ukrainians will die in the coming years. And, when it’s all over, my suspicion is that the starting borders will not have moved much, at all.
What a waste.