The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Has Putin’s brutality finally hit a wall in Ukraine?

A satellite image reveals bodies of Ukrainians lying in a street in Bucha, Ukraine, on March 19. (Maxar Technologies/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Vladimir Putin learned his brutal code of war in the “sandpit streets” of Leningrad when he was a poor boy of perhaps 7 and got into his first fight with a neighborhood gang.

“I realized that in every situation — whether I was right or wrong — I had to be strong,” Putin told biographer Oleg Blotsky. “I just understood that if you want to win, then you have to fight to the finish in every fight, as if it was the last and decisive battle.” Blotsky’s work was cited by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy in their biography, “Mr. Putin.”

The Russian army left gruesome evidence in the streets of Bucha, Ukraine, of how Putin’s tough-guy code applies in combat. The professional soldier becomes a street thug, with the same fight-to-the-finish mentality that Putin learned as a boy.

Putin’s whole life has converged on the catastrophic war in Ukraine. His delusional, messianic ideas of Russian history have fused with the disdain for the laws of war he displayed in the bloody campaign in Chechnya about two decades ago. The Russian leader fabricated the case for war in Ukraine and lied about his plans, and when he failed to achieve the easy victory he had expected, his army appears to have taken savage revenge on civilians.

Has Putin finally hit a wall in Ukraine? Thanks to courageous Ukrainians and foreign reporters, we are seeing the butchery that his style of war produces — in Bucha, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Trostianets — places most of us had never heard of a few weeks ago but are now written in infamy, alongside Guernica and Srebrenica. “Unbearable” was how French President Emmanuel Macron described the latest images. “A punch to the gut,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Putin “is a war criminal,” said President Biden.

The legal process for holding Putin and his army accountable has begun. The International Criminal Court launched an investigation in early March; Poland has called for an international investigative commission; French prosecutors have opened three investigations of war crimes against French citizens; and the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office has mobilized about 50,000 investigators to gather evidence of atrocities. Some of these investigations will proceed however the war is settled.

Russia’s response to the horrifying images has been in character for Putin’s regime: a shameless campaign of lies. The denials of brutal killing are so cavalier and reflexive that they convey a moral emptiness that should embarrass every honest Russian.

“All those died in Bucha were some kind of road traffic offenders,” asserted Russian member of parliament Oleg Matveichev. Bucha was “a flagrantly brutal provocation by Ukrainian Nazis,” said Russian state TV’s Olga Skabeyeva. The West chose Bucha for their “egregious accusation against Russia” because the town’s name sounds like the English word for “butcher,” claimed talk show host Olesya Loseva.

But the truth of these horrors is being confirmed, pixel by pixel. It’s a sweet bit of justice that Western social media, which Putin worked so hard to manipulate, are now dissecting Russia’s denials of responsibility for Bucha and other atrocities.

A systematic rebuttal began Monday with a post from Eliot Higgins, founder of the British investigative website Bellingcat. He examined Russian claims that images from Bucha showed “signs of video fakes and other forgeries.” Higgins showed that a supposed “moving hand” of a corpse filmed from a car was probably a water droplet moving across the windshield. Similarly, he clarified why Russian claims about a moving corpse supposedly reflected in a car mirror are explained by the mirror’s distortion.

And most devastating for Moscow: Commercial satellite imagery taken in mid-March by Maxar Technologies show dead bodies on the streets of Bucha while Russian troops occupied the town; they’re in precisely the same places that journalists found them when they arrived last weekend after Russian troops had left. That debunks Russian claims that the Bucha evidence might be fabricated because it wasn’t discovered until after Russian troops had departed.

What has this war meant for the Russian soldiers who followed Putin’s orders to invade their neighbor? A haunting snapshot of one elite unit, the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, was broadcast recently by the BBC’s Mark Urban. This unit — “the best of the best,” a general boasted in a video posted online last May — was sent toward Kyiv from its home base in Kostroma, northeast of Moscow, in February.

The unit’s commander was killed during fighting in Ukraine on March 13. Many other officers and senior enlisted men died before the unit was withdrawn last week to Belarus. The BBC identified 39 dead, and residents of Kostroma told the British network that closer to 100 members of the elite unit were killed. The BBC reported that as many as one-third of the 1,500-member force may be dead, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.

On a social media memorial wall for Sgt. Sergei Duganov, a Russian woman wrote: “The 331st regiment is disappearing. Almost every day, photos of our Kostroma boys get published. It sends shivers down my spine. What’s happening? When will this end? When will people stop dying?”

When will Putin’s brutal carnage end? That demand is growing louder in Russia, Ukraine and around the world.