As the world awaits Vladimir Putin’s next move toward Ukraine, we must be mindful of what further Russian incursion in that country would mean for the Ukrainian people.
It’s not difficult to predict: Russia’s human rights record under President Putin has been appalling. The corrupt, authoritarian regime in Moscow is responsible for the worst crackdown on human rights inside the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Freedom House notes that “with loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent.”
Tragically, ever since Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas region in 2014, the dreadful conditions within Russia have been replicated in Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. For the past eight years, Ukrainians in these regions have endured a human rights crisis under the thuggish rule of Russian figures and their proxies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russian governmental authorities in Crimea.
If Russian forces move further into Ukrainian territory, we should expect them to wage the campaign with total indifference to the basic tenets of the laws of war and to civilian suffering and lives. This was the case with Russian involvement in Syria, Chechnya, and Belarus.
As documented by Human Rights Watch, Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad lacked any concern for civilian casualties. Russian bombs targeted hospitals, schools, and other non-military sites. In Chechnya, Russian forces razed entire cities, indiscriminately attacked civilians, and engaged in massacres of noncombatants. Putin then put in charge of that republic Ramzan Kadyrov, who has accumulated one of the worst human rights records in the world. And in Belarus, Putin has backed that country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, and has been complicit in Lukashenko’s gross human abuses, stolen election, hijacking of a civilian airliner, and weaponization of migrants.
Rule of law has already disappeared for Ukrainian citizens in those areas under Russian control. Persecution of non-ethnic Russians, arbitrary arrests, and unlawful detentions have escalated.
In Crimea, “the occupation government severely limits political and civil rights, has silenced independent media, and employs antiterrorism and other laws against political dissidents,” Freedom House notes. “Many Ukrainians have been deported from or otherwise compelled to leave Crimea.” In particular, “Crimean Tatars have been victims of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment in custody,” Human Rights Watch has reported.
Along the conflict line in eastern Ukraine, Russian-sponsored militia forces have amassed a record of war crimes that includes indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, forced disappearances, illegal detention and torture of captives, and extrajudicial killings. One such militia group, the neo-Nazi Task Force Rusich, has exulted in its brutality against Ukrainians in Donbas, and now appears to be poised to go into Ukraine’s largest eastern city, Kharkiv.
The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights Report noted that
credible observers attributed thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as numerous abuses, to Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Authorities also conducted politically motivated arrests, detentions, and trials of Ukrainian citizens in Russia, many of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Of the 14,000 people who have perished in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, some 3,000 have been civilians—including the 298 on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, blown apart in July 2014 by a Russian missile while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
There has been a total lack of accountability for any of these crimes, as Russian authorities attempt to cow the local population into submission. The abuses committed by Russian forces are systemic in nature, mirroring the impunity that Russian security agents have inside Russia itself.
As bad as this situation has been, it could grow worse if the mass of Russian forces that has menacingly built up along the border with Ukraine moves to occupy more territory, and subject more Ukrainians to Russian occupation.
Amid Western intelligence reports that Putin seeks to depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and replace him with a pro-Russian puppet, we can anticipate that any figure imposed by the Kremlin on Ukraine would view human rights as a hindrance to maintaining control, just as Putin does inside Russia. It is hard to imagine that Ukrainians, who have fought valiantly for their freedom, would accept such a move, setting the stage for increasingly oppressive measures by Putin’s proxy, in order to subdue the restive population.
Thus, any “victory” by Putin—either through a successful military campaign or a manipulated change of government in Kyiv—would result in a brutal crackdown on human rights that would be bloody and costly. It almost certainly would lead to an outflow of refugees and ongoing instability that would cause problems far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Since the end of the Cold War, American and European ideals of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights have expanded across Europe, with the notable exception of Russia, Belarus, and some other outlier states. Ukrainians also embraced this vision, and for the second time in a decade—first in 2004 with the Orange Revolution, second in 2013–14 with the Revolution of Dignity, when the Ukrainian people demonstrated their desire for democratic change. They have looked to the West out of a sense of belonging, and as that missing piece of the puzzle that is a Europe “whole and free.” Ukraine has faced challenges as it has made this transformation—with issues of governmental corruption, assaults on rule of law, and political infighting—but through it all, its people have stayed true to their democratic aspirations.
To Putin, the people of Ukraine represent a threat to his own corrupt, authoritarian system inside Russia. He worries that if Ukrainians succeed in becoming a vibrant democracy with closer ties to the West, Russians might want the same. He also refuses to believe that Ukrainians—or for that matter Georgians, Moldovans, or Belarusians—on their own are capable of demanding better from their leaders. In his mind, the West must be instigating their calls for further democratization and accountable governance. Recall how in 2011, amid major demonstrations against fraudulent parliamentary elections in Russia, Putin accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving the “signal” for Russians to protest.
While Putin looks with trepidation at Ukrainians aspiring to live in a democracy, we should see them as worthy of our support. After all, the issues we currently confront are not just about the strategic realignment of Europe, the strength of the transatlantic alliance, or countering Russian adventurism. They also are about defending an ideal that has inspired Europe and the United States for the last thirty years: that people across the entirety of Europe can live in freedom, and can make their own choices about their futures without having those choices imposed upon them by a paranoid, aging autocrat in the Kremlin.
This should be our motivation to stand strong and not waiver in the face of naked Russian aggression.
Clint Williamson is a distinguished professor of practice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He previously served as Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
David J. Kramer, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is managing director for global policy at the George W. Bush Institute. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.
Originally published February 11, 2022.
Image: Putin’s 1980 KGB photo, kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4970161
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