Russia Must Be Held Accountable for War Crimes

Posted on Saturday, February 25, 2023
by Ben Solis

AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis

One of the most tragic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the suffering wrought on the Ukrainian people by the Russian army. While westerners are understandably startled by the graphic details of these horrific crimes and human rights violations, it should perhaps be unsurprising given that the Soviet roots of Vladimir Putin’s regime are steeped in similar atrocities.

The accounts of Russian brutality emerging from the conflict in Ukraine shock the conscience and are seemingly drawn from another far more barbaric epoch in human history. In Bucha, bodies of Ukrainian women were found naked and branded with swastikas in a mass grave. During the Russian invasion of Mariupol, one Ukrainian woman reported being raped by a Russian tank commander. In the village of Kalyta, a mother of four was gang raped by Russian soldiers. Mutilated and tortured bodies of men, women, and children have been found in forests, cellars, and streets after Russian soldiers moved through villages.

It is important to note that it is likely a small minority of Russian soldiers who are committing these crimes. Yet the overall pattern of heinous acts against civilians cannot be ignored.

To understand Russian cruelty in the war – and how the West should respond to it – one must understand the history of Soviet war crimes and how the West treated them in the last century.

The Soviet era was rife with human rights violations, from the gulags and political prisons to Moscow’s brutal repression of millions under its domain. One of the worst episodes of Soviet barbarity came in its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Accounts from United Nations reports published in 1986 and 1987 began to reveal the horrible truth about the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Afghan people. One witness said Soviet soldiers tied dynamite to the backs of old and blind Afghans in a village of Mata in the Panjsher Valley and blew them up. Another talked about helpless targets for Soviet bombers and helicopter gunships. According to the preeminent Afghan diplomat and historian Mohammad Kakar, the Soviets killed at least one million of his compatriots.

By the time the Berlin Wall collapsed, evidence of the Soviet army’s crimes—including gang raping women, bombarding towns and villages with combat gas, using booby traps, scorched earth tactics preventing civilian return, torturing, and indiscriminately killing prisoners of war—were increasingly undeniable.

Soviet dissidents, led by Nobel-prize winner Andrei Sakharov, called upon Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev for trials for Soviet army personnel who had committed the atrocities. Sakharov, who himself was exiled for his opposition to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, reiterated that the war was an act of aggression and horrendous criminality.

But in November 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, led by Gorbachev, announced an amnesty for Soviet troops who violated laws and basic humanity. Allegedly motivated “by the principles of humanism,” the Supreme Soviet released troops from liability for crimes, reversed convictions, and freed the imprisoned.

Human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky called the act a “mockery of justice.” The Russian church, under the thumb of the Politburo in Moscow, shamefully opposed making a moral judgement on the decision to absolve Russian troops of their war crimes.

Dissident Russian priests Alexander Men and Gleb Yakunin likened this social theology of the Russian church to the holy version of the “cog in the machine” theory that diminishes the value of individual human life.

Dissidents understood that to protect the fragile liberty of the fledgling Russian state would have required a voluntary confession of guilt at the moment of the new country’s founding. But such a challenge exceeded the Soviet government’s moral capacity, as many senior leaders shared responsibility for the war crimes. Gorbachev, meanwhile, did not want to harm the myth of an invincible and infallible Red Army, nor shake the pillar of his political power.

Western diplomats chose to ignore the Soviet crimes for political reasons, sacrificing their moral high ground in the process. They handed Gorbachev a “respectable” exit from Afghanistan and helped the Soviets avoid paying war indemnities. Washington and London salivated over the prospect of expanded markets in the Soviet sphere of influence, while Paris and Berlin eyed the future expansion of the European Union from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Both propositions turned out to be utopian, and the moral failing to address the crimes of the Red Army before has now manifested itself in the form of Russian crimes in Ukraine.

In light of this history, Western leaders would be wise to heed the lessons of the last century and hold Russia accountable for its crimes. Peace can never exist long unless it is built on a solid moral foundation, rather than cold political calculations.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.

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