What does Bucha mean for Russia’s relations with the West?

Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of carrying out a “deliberate massacre” in the kyiv suburb of Bucha while the town was under Russian occupation. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied these allegations. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on April 4 that the attack was staged, saying evidence of the killings emerged four days after Russian forces left the city on March 30. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the Ukrainian army bombed Bucha shortly after the Russians. on the left and that the victims in question were probably killed by Ukrainian airstrikes. The Kremlin further points to a video released on March 31 by Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk, which allegedly confirmed that there were no Russian troops in the city and made no mention of a possible massacre.

According to information recently obtained by Der Spiegel, the German foreign intelligence service intercepted Russian radio traffic in northern Ukraine, which could shed new light on the Bucha incident. The intercepted traffic is said to match the locations of several of the bodies found along one of Bucha’s main roads, apparently suggesting that these killings took place while Bucha was under Russian occupation. German intelligence sources reportedly added that the alleged killings, rather than the result of a lack of discipline or frustration among local troops, are part of a concerted campaign of terror: “the intention is to spread fear among the civilian population and thus reduce the will to resist,” Spiegel wrote.

As Russia and Ukraine continue to trade accusations over wartime atrocities in Bucha, there is only one thing that could put victims on the path to justice: a full international investigation. and impartial, negotiated on terms acceptable to both parties and overseen by a group of neutral observers.

If Moscow is, as it says, framed by the West for crimes its military did not commit, then Russia would likely support a full and impartial international investigation into the Bucha incident. ; indeed, as the party most invested in clearing its name, it would actively demand such an investigation. Rather, those calls have come from everyone but Russia, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, UN Secretary General António Guterres and the Pope. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has repeatedly called for an emergency UN Security Council session on Bucha, not to discuss the terms of an investigation into the atrocities, but ostensibly to denounce Ukraine and the West. “Today, Russia will once again demand that the UN Security Council meet to discuss the criminal provocations of the Ukrainian military and the radicals in this city,” the Russian ministry spokeswoman said. of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, earlier this week.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deflected again when asked about a possible Bucha investigation on Thursday, countering that Moscow was interested in what he described as “a fair investigation into all crimes of possible wars in Ukraine”. Is it? So far, there has been no indication that Moscow wants a real investigation to take place.

In contrast, the chairman of Russian aluminum giant Rusal, Bernard Zonneveld, on Friday called for an investigation into Bucha. “We support an objective and impartial investigation into this crime and call for severe punishment for the perpetrators,” Zonneveld said. “We all want a quick end to this fratricidal conflict, which is destroying lives, families and entire towns. And we want those responsible for such crimes to be appropriately punished. But there is no indication that Zonneveld’s statement on the need for an investigation in any way reflects the Kremlin’s official position; Rusal, a major player in the global aluminum market, could simply be trying to protect itself from possible Western sanctions.

Bucha’s accusations sparked a new wave of action against an expanded list of Russian elites, Putin’s daughters and Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution. For the first time since the start of the war in Ukraine, Congress introduced its own set of sanctions on Thursday, formally revoking normal trade relations with Russia. The action is largely symbolic, given the tiny volume of trade between the two countries. But while the Biden administration’s list of executive sanctions against Russia can be lifted relatively easily, experts say the suspension of ongoing normal trade relations with Russia will be difficult to reverse. The congressional trade ban came shortly after the United Nations General Assembly decided to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a move aimed at further isolating Russia from global institutions.

The architects of the growing Western sanctions regime against Moscow made it clear early in the war that their intention was to destroy the Russian economy; or, as one US official told Axios, to bring the Russian people back to a “Soviet-level” standard of living. But unless the goal is simply to avenge Ukraine, the destruction of the Russian economy cannot be a goal in itself – there must be an underlying political goal. This objective is becoming increasingly clear: more than a month after the start of the war, Washington increasingly believes that Ukraine can win. “Of course they can win this,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “The proof is literally in the results you see every day…they absolutely can win.”

It therefore seems that the objective is to mount a campaign of maximum economic and political pressure against Russia while maintaining the war as long as possible with the continuation of arms deliveries and other forms of military aid to the Ukraine. If Ukraine’s armed forces can finally turn the tide to the point where they can mount a counteroffensive against the Russian-aligned separatist People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR), Russia would potentially suffer a humiliating defeat in a war that was widely expected to win. From the Crimean War to the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, major battlefield defeats have historically been accompanied by periods of internal instability for Russia. This sequence of events would bring Russian hawks in Washington a hair’s breadth away from a goal that had eluded them since at least 2014: regime change in Russia.

But what would come next? The Russian population was massively mobilized to support the war in Ukraine; Anti-Western sentiment, catalyzed in large part by sanctions that would impoverish not Putin or his inner circle, but the average Russian, is reaching new heights. There is no indication that Putin’s successor, whether democratically elected or brought to power by popular unrest, would be more inclined to compromise with the West. All available indications point in the opposite direction. Insofar as there is a viable opposition movement waiting in the wings, their main argument is that Putin is not aggressive enough to confront the West and reconstitute Russia as a great Eurasian power.

Nevertheless, regime change remains a distant prospect; in the short to medium term, Putin will continue to respond to Western sanctions and aid to Ukraine by stepping up the Russian war effort until he succeeds in imposing a military solution.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the national interest.

Picture: Reuters.