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The Devil Was Here on Earth

The atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha one year ago have become the face of war’s horrors—and they were no isolated incidents.
April 4, 2023
The Devil Was Here on Earth
BUCHA, UKRAINE - APRIL 6, 2022: A man pushes his bike through debris and destroyed Russian military vehicles on a street in Bucha, Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has accused Russian forces of committing a "deliberate massacre" as they occupied and eventually retreated from Bucha, 25km northwest of Kyiv. Hundreds of bodies have been found in the days since Ukrainian forces regained control of the town. (Photo by Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

It is a year since the Kyiv region was liberated from the last of invading Russian troops. But this anniversary, which marks the first major Ukrainian success in this war, is coupled with a much more tragic occasion: A year ago, the world discovered the horrors inflicted by the invaders on the local population. One quiet suburban town gave those horrors a name: Bucha.

The first reports came in when, following the Russians forces’ hasty retreat, journalists and other observers who entered the liberated town saw the bodies: dead people, not soldiers but civilians, lying by the sidewalk or in the middle of the street, some on their back, some face down with hands tied behind the back. More than twenty such corpses were found along just one street, Yablonska Street. Later, there were more bodies, hundreds of them: in charred remnants of cars, in the front yards of homes, in parking lots, in basements—and in mass graves.

There were the predictable attempts at spin from Kremlin mouthpieces—whether government officials or “journalists”—and their amen corner abroad. It was all fake, they quickly declared, offering throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks versions of what happened. The dead bodies weren’t actually dead, they were crisis actors who could be seen moving if you looked closely enough! Or maybe they were actually dead but had been slaughtered by Ukrainian Nazis who entered the town immediately after the Russian troops left! The bodies weren’t in the earliest footage shot after the Russians’ departure! The Bucha mayor who announced the liberation of the town didn’t mention them! The name “Bucha” sounds like “Butcher,” which shows that the atrocities were the invention of English-speaking propagandists! (That last creative twist came from Russian television host Vladimir Solovyov.)

There were also the usual suspects “just asking questions” and warning that uncorroborated Ukrainian propaganda about Russian atrocities was being used to pull us into World War III:

By now, the atrocities—which include not only murder but rape and torture—are extensively corroborated, not just by eyewitness accounts but by real-time security camera and satellite footage. (There are equally grim reports from other nearby towns such as Irpin and Borodyanka.) But Kremlin propagandists such as foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stick to their accusations of a “provocation.” And their Western apologists who can’t bring themselves to deny the overwhelming evidence have to resort to tortured reasoning—for instance, claiming that executions of civilians are not a war crime if those civilians had previously belonged to an armed patrol at a checkpoint.

April 2, 2022 was the turning point in the war in Ukraine in more than one way. The liberation of the Kyiv region showed that the Ukrainians, at that point still desperately short on firepower, could rout the Russian leviathan—this, after the Russians reportedly planned to complete their “special operation” in a matter of days and many Western observers thought they had a good chance of succeeding. Three weeks before the Russian invasion began, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, reportedly warned at a closed-door congressional briefing that in the event of such an invasion Kyiv could fall within three days. The Russian retreat at Kyiv—despite Moscow’s preposterous attempt to spin it as a “goodwill gesture”—showed the world that military support for Ukraine would not be wasted and that Ukraine’s fight was not just a noble-but-doomed cause.

The grim discoveries at Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs also showed that the real doomed cause was that of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Earlier this year, the pro-Ukrainian-surrender crowd seized gleefully on out-of-context snippets from a long interview with Naftali Bennett, the former Israeli prime minister, which seemed to suggest that the United States and the United Kingdom blocked a Russia/Ukraine peace settlement in the spring of 2022. One can debate what Bennett really said or whether his claims are reliable. But one detail is indisputable: Bennett clearly said in the same interview that the atrocities in Bucha played a key role in the breakdown of the negotiations. As he put it, “The Bucha massacre—once that happened I said, it’s over.” Other sources, such as the English-language newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, have also confirmed that revelations about “war crimes committed by Russian troops in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories” became a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace talks. On April 8, 2022, three European leaders who arrived in Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and discuss the situation in Ukraine—European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EC foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell, and Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger—visited Bucha, watched the exhumation of the victims, and affirmed Europe’s commitment to Ukraine.

On the same day, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier—once a relative Russia dove—told Der Spiegel that “anyone who has responsibility for these crimes”—not only soldiers and military commanders but “those that have the political responsibility”—should answer to a war crimes tribunal. One clear implication was that to pressure Ukrainians to sit down for talks with Vladimir Putin’s Russia meant, in effect, asking them to talk to war criminals. At a news briefing a few days later, Putin himself charged that Kyiv had staged “fake” war crimes in order to bring the peace talks to a “dead end.”

What changed, many Ukrainians say, was the international community’s perception of Russia’s motivations in this war. As Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak put it in an anniversary interview:

Bucha was the starting point that transformed our—and the world’s—emotional understanding of this war. That is, at that moment we realized that Russia did not come here to achieve . . . military aims. All these mythical aims regarding NATO bases or biolabs, you remember—all those absurdities they talked about. Russia came here specifically, in the twenty-first century, to kill with extreme cruelty. Just look at what happened systemically in Bucha, in Hostomel. . . . Russia built, and came here with, a ready-made system for the extremely cruel murders on a large scale of Ukrainian citizens. And Bucha showed that [reality] for the first time, not only to us—we had already understood it from the start on a subconscious level—but showed it to the whole world.

The previous day, appearing on a Russian dissident YouTube channel, expatriate Russian writer Dmitry Bykov—who had visited Bucha last summer—voiced the same theme:

It was clear that after Bucha, there could be no compromise. It wasn’t a war intended to make Ukraine do this or that, or to make it more dependent on Russia, or to guarantee its status with regard to [the NATO] bloc. It was a war of destruction.

At a somber ceremony in Bucha last week, with leaders from Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Moldova in attendance, Zelensky spoke in more apocalyptic terms:

When Bucha was de-occupied, we saw that the devil was not somewhere out there but here on earth. The heinous truth about what was happening in the temporarily occupied territories was revealed to the world.

Other Ukrainians have echoed this metaphysical language. Here’s how Kyiv region police chief Andriy Nebytov, who was among the first to enter liberated Bucha, recently recalled his reaction to seeing the bodies of the massacred:

We realized that, in fact, evil had dwelled on this land for a month—an evil that simply hated everything human, an evil whose sole intent was to kill and abuse peaceful civilians.

Were the atrocities in Bucha and other towns in the Kyiv region the result of deliberate policy? There is no evidence that mass murder was directed by high-level officials, although at least one soldier who has confessed to murdering a civilian in Bucha said he did so on direct orders from his commanding officer. And it is clear from eyewitness accounts that many Russian soldiers had accepted the main part of Russia’s propaganda about the purpose of the invasion: They saw ridding the land of “Nazis” or “Banderovites” (i.e., Ukrainian nationalists) as a core part of their assignment and accepted that all those opposed to Russian rule were to be either killed or terrorized into submission. In that sense, the horrific violence was certainly authorized by the Russian state. Bykov suggests that the brutality was also a product, in part, of another stream of Kremlin propaganda: Many soldiers fell for the false narrative that a captive population was waiting to be liberated from an oppressive Ukrainian regime, and those men reacted with “disappointment”—and aggrieved rage—when they realized that they were being welcomed not with jubilant gratitude, but with fear and hatred.

The atrocities in Bucha were also authorized in the sense that no attempt was made to punish the criminals. Quite the opposite: Two weeks after the first Bucha revelations, Putin issued a decree recognizing the “heroism and bravery” of the 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Russian army—the very unit Ukrainian authorities had named as responsible for the bulk of the Bucha murders. As a special honor, the brigade was also upgraded to “guard” status.

One may debate the degree to which ordinary Russians share in responsibility for Bucha, or to which these atrocities reflect, as Podolyak suggested, some “deep-seated part of the Russian character.” In his interview, Nebytov stressed that even within the occupying Russian forces stationed in Bucha, different units behaved very differently. One could also raise the question of accountability for Western deniers and apologists, whose behavior is especially despicable when contrasted to the small number of courageous Russians willing to risk prison for telling the truth about Bucha—a truth that cost opposition activist Ilya Yashin an eight-and-a-half-year sentence.

In a more literal and legal sense, it’s the actual perpetrators of war crimes who must be held accountable, along with the superiors who gave them criminal orders and the officials who concealed or enabled those crimes. The free world must do what it can to ensure that when the war is over, Ukraine is in a position to demand—and receive—such accountability.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.