The revelations of the alleged war crimes in Bucha are making Russia's war more complicated for the leaders of China, who could have supported a victorious Moscow without hesitation, but a humiliated Moscow is a different matter. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin's shared ambitions of a new world order is at stake.
PARIS — Some images change the course of history. In 1968, the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks, was a military failure for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the People’s Army of Vietnam. But it also marked a major political turning point. War had invaded American dining rooms through the images shown on television news broadcasts.
For a majority of Americans, this military adventure had to be stopped. In 1975, the Fall of Saigon brought about the reunification of Vietnam under communism.
In 2022, will the images of the civilian massacres in Bucha (and elsewhere) by Russian soldiers mark a historical turning point? And this time in a polar opposite way, pushing the Western world to provide more military support to Ukrainians?
By systematically and deliberately targeting civilians in the era of the internet and social media, has Putin’s Russia crossed an ethical, political and emotional red line? Could Hitler have recklessly carried on with his policy of the extermination of European Jews if images of the reality of the death camps existed? Could Pope Pius XII have remained silent? Could the United States have abstained from bombing railroad tracks leading to the camps and the camps themselves to halt the Nazi death machine? They had the privilege of ignorance, whether real or faked.
History is written by the victors
In April 2022, it is not possible to have the slightest doubt about the reality of the situation. Vladimir Putin and Russian officials’ denial and lies would be laughable if they weren’t so unbearable. In line with a long tradition of making up and rewriting history, from Imperial Russia to Soviet Russia, Putin’s Russia knows it must always deny, even in the case of evidence. It assimilated Jean Anouilh’s formula that “Propaganda is a simple thing: all you have to do is say something absurd and to repeat it often.”
Yet will the shock of images and the weight of words suffice to transform the course of history? In other words, will there be a before and after Bucha? Remembering that history is written by the victors would be a purely cynical answer.
Will there be a before and after Bucha?
Without the military collapse of Nazi Germany, the Nuremberg Trials would not have happened. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime committed atrocious crimes, but by clinging to power thanks to the help of Russia and Iran, he has become almost socially acceptable again in the Middle East. Who could bring him before an international court of justice these days? This victor’s impunity is undoubtedly what now motivates Putin. He cannot lose the war because he would lose power and would be brought before the court. He will have to make up reality right to the end.
How to negotiate with a "butcher"
Putin’s dilemma is to face his opponents, from Kyiv to Washington, by way of European Union member countries (except perhaps the Hungary of Viktor Orbán, who has just triumphantly been reelected in spite of his dangerous links with Putin). Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Joe Biden has progressively slipped into Ronald Reagan’s clothes.
Facing an updated version of the “Evil Empire,” Biden has become the defender of freedom. He calls a spade “a spade” — that is, Putin a “butcher.” An ethically appropriate choice of words in all likelihood — confirmed by the images from Ukraine — but politically difficult.
How is it possible to negotiate with a man when you have denounced his profound nature? If it is to be consistent, Biden’s strategy, which de facto aims for a regime change in Moscow, implies a whole different type of engagement with Ukraine. He cannot at once want to take Putin before an international court and deliver weapons to Kyiv periodically.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia speaks with Chinese ambassador Zhang Jun
China's support of Russia is not unconditional
What’s pursued is not the non-defeat of Ukraine anymore, it is Russia’s defeat: This condition is necessary and might be sufficient for Putin to go. The Western dilemma is in return to face Putin’s allies, starting with China and, to a lesser degree, India.
When he invaded Ukraine with a combination of extreme brutality and inefficiency, did Putin challenge the “rock solid” alliance that had just been announced by Moscow and Beijing: the realignment of the world on ideological bases pitting authoritarianism against democracy?
Ever since the revelation of the crimes in Bucha, China seems embarrassed. It doesn’t want to condemn its Russian ally, but it cannot ignore the global indignation. Like Russia, it is also looking to buy time. China would have supported a victorious Russia without hesitation, without qualms. But a defeated, humiliated Russia is a different matter.
Democracy or authoritarianism?
China cannot choose between its ideological vision for the future of the world and the protection of its immediate economic interests. It is important to remember that its trade with Russia is one-tenth the trade it has with the United States and Europe.
What’s even more troubling for Beijing perhaps is that, until now at least, the invasion of Ukraine has made only one victor: Biden’s America. In a little less than a month, America has retrieved some part of the moral authority it had lost in recent years. And a day will come when American liquefied gas will be able to substitute Russian gas in Europe. What’s the point in having a privileged ally if Moscow’s politics only result in strengthening the position of Beijing’s number one adversary, Washington?
War is going to last and history is far from being written
For now — with a war that's going to last, and history far from written — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not reinforced, but rather dwindled China and Russia’s hope for this new international order built around the “authoritarians.”
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