The reports and photographs showing an apparent massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, are truly terrible. They are reminiscent of the atrocities used to galvanize Western opinion during Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, when the Srebrenica Massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo were seared into Western consciousness.
Of course, pictures do not always tell the whole story. For example, to determine whether a war crime took place we must know who did the killing, why, and how. After all, the United States killed many thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, frequently by accident, in the course of those wars. Few in the United States or Europe would call those actions war crimes. This all became apparent after the United States exonerated itself for the annihilation of an Afghan family via a missile strike during the withdrawal of U.S. forces last summer. Oops.
Like any crime, a war crime must involve intent or at least recklessness. Killing civilians or POWs without trial, or humiliating them as an act of revenge, are each undoubtedly war crimes. The documented abuse of prisoners by Donetsk People’s Republic commander Givi was the basis for a Ukrainian war crimes investigation against him, before he was assassinated in 2017.
If civilians were shot and purposefully killed in Bucha, it undoubtedly would be a war crime and a terrible thing. But there are credible reasons to believe the so-called Bucha Massacre was not the doing of the Russian Forces, but rather of the Ukrainians—either local militia or SBU or some combination of thereof—as part of brutal reprisals against “saboteurs” and “Russian collaborators.”
First, this fits with a pattern of Ukrainian forces violating the rules of war, as evidenced by numerous videos showing the shooting of prisoners, torturing civilians, and the like. Unlike the still photos in Bucha, these videos show the actions themselves, as well as the perpetrators, which even the New York Times recently acknowledged.
Second, Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelenskyy has given numerous speeches calling for the punishment of “saboteurs” and “traitors,” saying the war will ultimately end with the “de-Russification” of Ukraine. These are tough words, which clearly would tend to inflame and encourage the more extremist elements.
Three, the atmosphere in Ukraine is ripe for war crimes. While U.S. Second Amendment supporters were understandably heartened by the Ukrainian government’s weapons giveaway, some of those weapons ended up in the hands of criminals and undisciplined characters. This was not a mere oversight; Ukraine deliberately freed prisoners with combat experience in order to allow them to fight. One would not expect this group to be scrupulous adherents to the laws of war.
There are also many documented accounts of Ukrainians killing one another out of paranoia about spies and saboteurs. It is easy enough to see why. There is a hair’s breadth of difference between Ukrainians and Russians, and many in the East only speak Russian, have supported Russia, or at least have a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the Ukraine regime. This fuels the possibility of internecine violence, which will be rationalized after the fact as the clearing out of traitors and fifth columnists.