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Victor Tregubov: Blame Russia, not just Putin

April 6, 2022 5:06 AM 4 min read
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / TOPSHOT - A man walks on a street with several dead bodies on the ground a street in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, as Ukraine says Russian forces are making a "rapid retreat" from northern areas around Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv, on April 2, 2022. - The bodies of at least 20 men in civilian clothes were found lying in a single street Saturday after Ukrainian forces retook the town of Bucha near Kyiv from Russian troops, AFP journalists said. Russian forces withdrew from several towns near Kyiv in recent days after Moscow's bid to encircle the capital failed, with Ukraine declaring that Bucha had been "liberated". (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
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Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors.

The withdrawal of the Russian forces from the northern part of the Kyiv Oblast was great news to hear. The Ukrainian capital of more than three million people at last felt relatively safe – with the noticeable exceptions of the long-range missiles hitting buildings here and there.

But what Ukrainians and international journalists saw in the liberated territories shocked even the most experienced ones. That wasn’t even Syria-like: The older war photographers compared it to Rwanda.

On some streets of Bucha, one could see more bodies of civilians than the street lanterns. Some of the bodies were shot, others burned, while some had their hands tied behind their backs – a tragic testament to the horrors of Russian occupation.

Destroyed houses, children's playgrounds and even stables burnt down with the horses inside – the alleged atrocities in Bucha sent shock waves around the international community, with Western leaders calling for war crimes investigations and increasing sanctions on Russia.

Sometimes, war crimes can have military logic behind them: destruction of civilian infrastructure using artillery or bombs, hypothetically, could be dictated by the soldiers’ reluctance to enter densely-populated areas.

Sometimes, war crimes have pragmatic logic behind them. Looting or stealing food is a gruesome act but at least there could be some need to do that.

But some war crimes have no logical explanation except the hatred on the part of those who committed them.

According to my friend who survived (and rescued 10 cats) in the occupied village of Zdvyzhivka, during the very first days, Russians destroyed all civilian infrastructure, including the gas heating system. As they stationed near the city, they shot anyone who tried to evacuate and sometimes just visited the houses to shoot families there.

Such reports have arrived from other formerly occupied parts of the Kyiv Oblast. There were some similarities in who was targeted: Some of the victims were local authorities and their families, some were teachers. However, many were just people with no known common features.

After Kyiv Oblast was cleared from the Russian forces, Bucha’s Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said that 280 people had been buried in mass graves.

I don't know how to explain this criminal and inhumane behavior. It is not only criminal, inhumane, barbaric: it is also stupid. It makes no practical sense.

On the contrary, that’s the thing one shouldn’t do on the occupied territories when trying to pose oneself as a liberator. One should be at least neutral, if not friendly, to the locals; it increases the chances of survival and success.

Instead, the Russians have switched to terror. They felt it to be appropriate.

There is also one crucial aspect we should address.

It's easier for a person to shoot someone who noticeably differs from people they know and love – who speaks a different language, wears different clothes or has different traditions.

But the murdered people of Bucha and other towns near Kyiv had no visible distinction from Russians. They were of the same color, dressed the same, and likely spoke to them in the same language. The old Ukrainian man on a bicycle, shot down by a Russian soldier, probably looked more or less like that soldier's father or brother.

For an average person, it is hard to do so even by order, even in the face of a threat.

I think that the Russian soldiers were doing it for fun – just because they could.

Some people argue it became possible because of Russian propaganda and its dehumanization of Ukrainians. However, Russian propaganda often emphasizes that Russians and Ukrainians are "brotherly nations" or even “one people.” Historical evidence of civil conflicts in Russia tells us Russian soldiers are equally eager to shoot their own compatriots.

The secret of Russian military power is its complete disregard for any human life – whether it is the life of soldiers and civilians, or the enemy’s, or their own.

For many Russian soldiers – especially those raised in tiny Russian villages with alcoholism problems, theft and low levels of education – joining the army might be one of the very few ways to feel significant. The intercepted phone calls between the Russian soldiers and their relatives at home suggest that those people often live in poverty and feel jealous of some well-off Ukrainian households they looted, noting how they have good furniture or even basic kitchen appliances.

Ukrainians know Russians. We used to live within one big empire with Russians for a long time. We know them, we understand how their society works. And we know that Vladimir Putin isn’t an exception in Russian history: he is the rule. Neither is he a tyrant that poisoned the normal society with toxic ideology, as Adolf Hitler did to Germans. No – he just accumulates the dreams, fears, and psychological complexes of a common Russian. He is the real Russia, the voice of the majority, the national leader.

We know that a lot of Russians approve of his actions – at home and beyond. After Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea, Putin’s rating skyrocketed. After the full-scale invasion started, his ratings went up once again, which is confirmed not only by his lapdog social analysts but also by independent ones. It looks like even the apparent fall in the quality of life of ordinary Russians could not change that.

The only thing that shook that support was the Istanbul peace talks. After the talks, I saw not Internet trolls but ordinary Russians lamenting about treachery and demanding war until the fall of Kyiv and Lviv. Some even added Warsaw to the list.

We are not surprised. I suppose Polish people won’t be surprised either.

I feel like the whole cultural paradigm of Russian society is toxic. We want to think that every culture and society produces normal, civilized behavior, and if something goes wrong, the persons to blame are the local leaders.

But the Russian ideology promotes imperialism, chauvinism, disrespect towards international law and basic human rights. The Great Russian Culture failed to save its own nation.

The ordinary Russian doesn’t resemble Prince Bolkonsky. He’s more like the infamous GRU poisoners known as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, or like that unknown soldier who shot the old man on a bicycle in Bucha just because he could.

Russia has suffered a crushing moral defeat and has become an outcast, despised nation. Many – both in Russia and in the West –  don't want to believe that. But the streets of Bucha offer plenty of evidence.

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