The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Bucha massacre marks grim turning point in Russia’s war

People stand near a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Even before this week, Russia’s unjust destruction of Ukraine — the smashing of people’s hopes and dreams along with their homes, hospitals and theaters by indiscriminate shelling and bombs — was a war crime. But its scale grew over the weekend as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops retreated from Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, revealing indelible evidence of the slaughter of innocent civilians: streets littered with the bodies of people shot in the head, their hands bound; and a freshly dug mass grave. The Bucha massacre marks a grim turning point in Russia’s invasion, and the world must respond forcefully.

Russia’s military atrocities in Ukraine have been seen before, in the brutal “zachistka,” or cleansing operations, in Chechnya, which destroyed towns and villages, and the indiscriminate attacks on hospitals in the Syrian city of Aleppo. As in Syria, Russia has agreed to humanitarian corridors for Ukraine’s Mariupol, only to attack them. Until now, the world’s response to these crimes has been weak; now it must not be. Mr. Putin puts his faith in the tyranny of violence. He must be shown that such barbarism will not be tolerated — by identifying and holding to account those who carried out the atrocities in Bucha and all of Ukraine.

To begin with, the horrors must be documented. A prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is investigating, and all efforts must be made to help Ukraine gather evidence. The shocking videos and testaments of recent days are the foundation of accountability. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the civilian executions “genocide,” and President Biden declared that Mr. Putin is “a war criminal.” Those words will find meaning only with a determined prosecution.

Next, the 27-nation European Union must wean itself from Russian fossil fuels — the oil and gas that are still flowing and transferring cash into Mr. Putin’s treasury. Germany is reliant on Russian natural gas, and reductions will be difficult for all, but closing the valves is becoming more urgent and unavoidable. The E.U. is reportedly preparing another round of economic sanctions amid doubts about the willpower to curb gas imports. It makes no sense to denounce the war crimes while funding the war machine. The White House on Monday promised more U.S. sanctions; they should target the Russian industries and banks that have been left largely untouched so far.

In the end, the war against Ukraine is about whether a people who want to build a democracy, to choose their own leaders and to shape their own future, can be cowed into submission by an armed force; whether the sickening inhumanity of murdering residents in Bucha with a bullet to the back of the head will destroy the will of all Ukraine to resist. Instead, it must strengthen their resolve and boost the willpower of all nations supporting Ukraine to decisively defeat the Russian invasion.

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