What the Ukrainians Are Fighting For
[Editor’s note: This article is adapted from testimony delivered to the Tom Lantos Human Right Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday.]
The way a regime treats its own people is often indicative of how it will act toward other nations. Vladimir Putin has provided us with a tragic reminder of this correlation through his unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Amid the worst crackdown on human rights inside Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, as Putin moves from authoritarian control to outright dictatorship, he has launched unspeakable acts of aggression in the heart of Europe against the Ukrainian people.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has caused massive devastation and loss of life. More than a million Ukrainians have already been forced to flee their country, and the United Nations estimates some 10 million, roughly a quarter of the country’s population, could be displaced in the near future. Despite the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky and heroic efforts by Ukrainian soldiers and average citizens to resist the marauding Russian forces, Putin’s military is poised for further attacks on major cities, including Kyiv, and deliberate targeting of residential buildings, hospitals, and government complexes, as well as nuclear power plants. This is how Putin conducts urban warfare. One need only look at pictures of Grozny and Aleppo after they were razed by his bombing and shelling. We should expect the death toll to continue to rise.
It does not require an expert in the law of armed conflict to see that Putin and his military are guilty of war crimes. We can see the devastation Putin’s forces are inflicting on Ukraine on live television. We can hear Putin’s own words in which he takes full responsibility for what is happening on the ground—all of this is being carried out based on his orders.
The International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, and the U.N. Human Rights Council have initiated procedures to hold the Russian state and Putin accountable. Those deliberations, while vital, will take time—and between now and then, more innocent Ukrainians will be slaughtered under Putin’s orders.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine violates Article 2, section 4 of the United Nations Charter: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
The U.N. Charter is not the only agreement that Putin has violated. The list includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords of 1975, in which the 35 signatories, including at that time the Soviet Union, recognized the inviolability of the post-World War II frontiers in Europe and pledged to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Putin also has violated the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, signed in 1990 by the Soviet Union and the countries of Europe and North America, which proclaimed the end of “the era of confrontation and division of Europe.” The signatories pledged to commit to “democracy based on human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State,” emphasizing as well “the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements.”
Putin has violated an updated version of that charter, signed when he was prime minister in 1999, which reaffirmed “the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.” Like the Charter of Paris, the Istanbul Declaration reiterated that no state “can consider any part” of Europe as “its sphere of influence.”
The first time he invaded Ukraine in 2014, Putin reneged on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons, the third-largest such force at the time, inherited from the breakup of the Soviet Union. In exchange, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country.
Finally, Putin has violated two bilateral treaties with Ukraine: The first is the Russia-Ukraine Friendship Treaty of 1997, which recognized the inviolability of existing borders, respect for territorial integrity, and mutual commitment not to harm each other’s security. The other, the Treaty Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on the Russian-Ukrainian State Border, was signed in January 2003 by Putin himself and demarcated the 1,200-mile-long border between Ukraine and Russia.
In addition to his violation of all these agreements, understandings, and treaties, Putin has a long and bloody record of gross human rights abuses, atrocities, and war crimes, along with violations of other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. It started with the way he came to power, overseeing a brutal war against Chechens in 1999, in which tens of thousands were injured and killed, and Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was leveled. It continued in 2008, when Russian forces invaded Georgia, and was repeated with Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Russian forces have also been credibly accused of war crimes, including targeting civilians and even hospitals, during their intervention in Syria since 2015.
Putin has never been properly held to account. Thus, we should not be shocked that each failure to check him leads to him to conclude that he can get away with more. We ignored Putin’s scorched-earth campaign in Chechnya and did virtually nothing in response to the cyberattack he launched against Estonia, a NATO member state, in 2007. Our response to the invasion of Georgia was mostly feckless, and the reset policy that followed less than a year later likely reinforced Putin’s sense of impunity.
Putin’s interference in Ukraine started several months before the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (the Euromaidan), when he pressured then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. It is worth noting that NATO, the enlargement of which some cite as the reason for Putin’s agitation, had absolutely nothing to do with Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2014. No one was discussing Ukraine and NATO at that time; in fact, Ukraine under Yanukovych became a “nonaligned” state in 2010 and pursuing NATO membership was no longer a foreign policy objective.
It was Putin’s pressure on Yanukovych not to sign the agreements with the EU that triggered the Revolution of Dignity. For Putin, the notion that Ukrainians, on their own, would turn out in the streets, at grave risk, to demand better from their government, an end to corruption, and a Western orientation was simply too much to stomach. So he illegally annexed Crimea and then invaded the Donbas region in an attempt to reverse the Revolution of Dignity and warn Russians against trying to re-create it. This same thinking explains Putin’s support for the brutal dictator in neighboring Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who stole the 2020 election and launched a vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters. It also explains the Russian-led intervention through the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Kazakhstan in January to ensure President Tokayev was not removed from power as a result of popular protests.
The Western response to Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine was halting. It took Russia shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, and the deaths of the 298 people on board, for NATO and EU members to impose serious sanctions. While those sanctions may have kept Putin from marching farther into Ukraine, it was Ukrainian resistance to that aggression that made the key difference.
Putin’s intervention in Syria the next year to prop up the murderous Assad regime led to accusations against Russian forces of widespread human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Putin has also used the Wagner mercenary group to carry out Russian policy around the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Wagner, too, has been accused of gross human rights violations, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been sanctioned again by the Biden administration.
Since Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians in Russian-controlled parts of the country have endured a human rights crisis under the thuggish rule of Russian authorities in Crimea and Russian proxies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The rule of law had disappeared in these areas, while persecution of ethnic minorities (i.e., non-Russians), arbitrary arrests, and unlawful detentions became everyday occurrences. Today, as Russian forces move farther into Ukrainian territory, they are waging their campaign with total indifference to the basic tenets of the laws of war and to civilian suffering.
The current crisis is a result of Putin’s fear that a successful, democratic Ukraine that looks westward instead of to Moscow poses a threatening alternative to the kleptocratic, authoritarian system that he oversees in Russia.
Putin sought to destabilize Ukraine so that the West would lose interest in it. He failed. For all its fits and starts, Ukraine has been moving in a positive direction. It deserves Western support and eventual membership in NATO and the EU. Through his first invasion in 2014, Putin inadvertently renewed in Ukrainians a strong sense of national identity as a proud, independent state. He also produced a spike in support for joining NATO, which before 2014 had been supported only by a small minority of the country. Just before the latest invasion, more than 60 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO for its Article 5 security guarantees.
In the lead-up to this latest crisis, the Biden administration did an excellent job of coordinating with allies and preparing an unprecedented package of sanctions in the event Putin invaded. The sanctions have been swift and have already had a major impact on the Russian economy. The ruble has plummeted in value while interest rates in Russia have soared. Russian oligarchs are desperately trying to shield their ill-gotten yachts and property from law enforcement. Putin himself has been sanctioned and is rightly viewed as a pariah.
In addition to sanctions, the United States and its allies have supported Ukraine by providing a significant increase in lethal military assistance, and have deployed more in forces in NATO member states that border Russia and/or Ukraine.
But more must be done to prevent widescale casualties and a potential bloodbath. Pursuing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, significant as such steps are, takes time. They won’t stop the bloodshed. Estimates suggest that that number of Ukrainian refugees could reach 5 million, more than 10 percent of the population. Several thousand Ukrainians have already died from Putin’s latest aggression, on top of the more than 14,000 killed following Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in starting in 2014. Ukraine is facing a severe humanitarian disaster, and the effects are reverberating across the European continent and beyond.
President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have stated that neither the United States nor NATO will engage Russian forces on the ground in Ukraine. No one wants a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. The risks of escalation are too great. But not doing enough to prevent Putin’s onslaught has its own risks. Today Ukrainians are the targets of Putin’s aggression; tomorrow it could be Moldovans, Poles, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, or Georgians (once again).
It is time for the United States and NATO to step up their help for Ukrainians before more innocent civilians fall victim to Putin’s murderous madness. Ukrainians are courageously defending their country and their freedom, but they need more help from the international community.
There are some who have commented that Putin has reinvigorated NATO, caused a revolution in German foreign and defense policy, and brought the democratic world together like never before. That is all true and good, but the slaughter of Ukrainians continues apace. Some would have us all “relax” because Russia’s military is “stalled out in Ukraine.” The Ukrainians cannot relax. Others argue that focusing on Russia and Ukraine distracts us from where we should be focusing—China. Without taking anything away from the serious challenge China poses, perhaps these commentators need reminders that Europe is the continent where two world wars began.
It is possible that Putin has made a fatal political move in invading Ukraine. His ugly crackdown inside his own country does not reflect a leader confident in his persuasive skills or in his support among the Russian people. Regimes like Putin’s seem stable until the moment they fall. But until his reckoning comes, Putin is wreaking havoc on a country of 43 million people.
It can be tempting, watching from thousands of miles away, to conclude that as long as the Ukrainians are fighting and dying for the cause of freedom, we are winning. This is false. We only win when Ukraine succeeds, and Ukraine’s future as a successful democracy becomes more endangered with every murder of a civilian, every bombing of an apartment, every atrocity committed against its people.
If we will not help the people of Ukraine for their own sake, because it is our duty as Americans and as human beings, then we should help them for our sake. They are fighting one of the great enemies of human rights and dignity in modern history. Their fight is our fight, too.