Since the early days of Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we have heard journalists, experts, world leaders and other members of the global community vilifying Putin’s war crimes and the need to hold him accountable for the blatant murder. and the brutality of Russian soldiers inflicted on the Ukrainian civilian population and on the country itself.
But we also hear – and we can certainly observe – how the wheels of international justice are spinning with agonizing slowness or simply not moving at all, to the point of being, to be very frank, practically irrelevant.
Unlike the proverbial tortoise whose slow, steady pace eventually overtakes the hare gleefully too self-assured and undisciplined to win the race, the international system of justice at work in our supposed global community doesn’t seem to advance even at a slow pace and constant; and even if he did, he would by no means be able to declare any kind of victory, or serve any consequential justice, on behalf of the Ukrainian people and their sovereign nation.
We feel all the uncertainties about the need to properly document the atrocities, gather evidence, build a real case, blablabla. Meanwhile, bodies pile up and Ukrainian homes and the nation’s infrastructure are bombed to pieces.
But even all this legal and bureaucratic grumbling cannot cloud the reality we witness every day on the news of what just recently President Biden and now Canadian lawmakers they have come to conclude a genocide against the Ukrainian people, finally confirming what President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders have been saying for some time.
As I wrote a few weeks ago in the pages of Politicus USA, identifying Putin’s barbarism as “genocide” and not as “war” can potentially be extremely important precisely because the term “genocide” should command – trigger – a substantial international intervention.
In fact, in his 2002 book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Era of Genocide, Samantha Power analyzes how one of the ways the United States avoided intervening in the myriad of twentieth-century genocides was to avoid using the term “genocide” to describe mass killings committed by state actors. Bureaucratic processes and language have served as a kind of moral fig leaf or ointment for the United States as it conceives and carries out its foreign policy, which has historically garnered little or no willingness to confront or move to stop genocide in action.
Recently Ross Douthat, in an insightful column entitled “Why Biden Saying ‘Genocide’ Doesn’t Matter,” he said history teaches us that even when genocide was reported, the international community often did little to intervene or demand any kind of justice. He points to the genocide of the Uyghur minority in China, which the United States declared genocide in 2021, and the genocide against the Rohinga in Myanmar, which elicited no US military response.
While Douthat’s historical analysis rings sadly true, the term “genocide” still has force, both in its accuracy when applied to Putin’s murderous violence against Ukrainians, and in its ability to provoke and justify direct military intervention.
So far, however, world democracies have been slow to respond, including by providing military aid and equipment to Ukraine.
Despite being heard that global democracy hangs in the balance with Putin’s move to wipe out the Ukrainian people and their culture from the face of the earth and colonize their sovereign territory, however, the international community sees resisting Putin’s aggression as a struggle for the Ukrainians themselves.
In terms of actual military personnel, Ukrainians fend for themselves as more civilians die and are displaced every day and more of the country is reduced to rubble.
Does the bureaucratic postponement of justice to some fantastic future moment in which Putin will be put on trial alleviate international conscience and justify non-intervention? Our constant encouragement and heroism of the Ukrainian people delude us into thinking that they have covered it up, again, even though they suffer for no reason and endure what multiple nations have agreed is genocide?
I hear that not intervening is a way to avoid World War III.
But let me ask, what has to happen to justify World War III? What must a single world leader do to provoke international intervention? What if, as Hitler was advancing through Europe on his genocidal mission, the United States and other nations said, well, we want to avoid World War II, so we’re not going to do anything?
And what’s the end of the game if Putin somehow really ends up victorious in this campaign? What then?
By playing Putin’s tortoise, the international community is putting global democracy at risk and certainly does not show the way to create a global community characterized by mutual responsibility and help.
Those nations seeking to support global democracy would do better to stand up now and say no to Putin with thunder, whatever the risks of a wider war.
First, I find it hard to believe that Putin would have eager allies with much to gain by supporting his ill-conceived genocidal enterprise.
Second, the best way to avoid World War III – and World War 4 and V – is for the international community to rise aggressively and immediately reject Putin, thus sending the message that whenever an authoritarian leader moves against a sovereign democratic nation, the response will be swift and decisive from the democratic nations of the world.
I can’t think of a greater deterrent, especially when we remember that Putin in this case was encouraged by his occupation of Crimea, his war crimes in Syria, and so on, when the world did nothing, in reality.
Authoritarian leaders need to know that sovereign democratic nations will stand in solidarity to protect global democracy.
Democratic leaders around the world must be firm, for sure, in their support for democratic nations, but they must also be quick to respond to threats and aggressions against global democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender and politics, for which he has received recognition from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.