Posted April 10, 2022, at 12.00
There are images that change the course of history. In 1968, the Tet Offensive was a military failure for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and the Vietnamese People’s Army. But it was a political turning point. Through the pictures of the TV news, the war had just invaded American dining rooms. For a growing majority of Americans, this military adventure had to end. In 1975, the fall of Saigon led to the reunification of Vietnam behind the communist north.
In 2022, the images of the massacres of civilians committed in Boutcha (and elsewhere) by Russian soldiers will constitute a historic turning point – and this in a direction diametrically opposed to the images of the Vietnam War, by forcing the Western world to engage more with the Ukrainians? By systematically and deliberately attacking civilian populations in the age of the Internet and social networks, has Putin’s Russia crossed an ethical, political, and emotional red line? Could Hitler have pursued his policy of eliminating Europe’s Jewish populations with impunity if there had been images that showed the reality of the death camps? Could Pius XII have remained silent, could the United States have refrained from bombing the railroads leading to the camps and the camps themselves to stop the Nazi death machine? They had the privilege of ignorance, real or imagined.
The story is written by the victors
In April 2022, it is not possible to be the least bit in doubt about the reality of the facts. The denials and lies of Vladimir Putin and Russian officials would be laughable if they were not so heinous. Heir to a long tradition of fabricating and rewriting history, from Imperial Russia to Soviet Russia, Putin’s Russia knows that it is always necessary to deny, even the obvious. She has integrated Jean Anouilh’s formula, according to which “propaganda is a simple thing: you just have to say something very big and repeat it often”.
But will the clash of images and the weight of words be enough to transform the course of history? In other words, will there be a before and after Boutcha? A purely cynical answer would be to remind that the story is written by the victors. Without the military collapse of Nazi Germany, the Nuremberg trials would not have been possible. Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has committed horrific crimes, but by holding on to power with the help of the Russians and Iranians, the ruler of Damascus has at least become almost social again in the Middle East. Who could bring him before an international court today? It is this impunity for the winner that undoubtedly motivates Putin now. He can not lose the war, because he would lose power and end up in court. He will have to hide reality to the last.
Can we negotiate with what we call a “butcher”?
Putin’s dilemma is primarily the dilemma of his opponents, from Kyiv to Washington, via the member states of the European Union (with the possible exception of Victor Orban’s Hungary, which has just been triumphantly re-elected despite its dangerous ties with Putin). Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Joe Biden has gradually slipped into Ronald Reagan’s clothes.
Faced with an updated version of “the evil empire”, he has become the master of freedom. He calls a spade “a spade”, that is, Putin for a “butcher”. A choice of words – confirmed by the images from Ukraine – ethically appropriate without a doubt, but politically difficult. How do you negotiate with a man whose deep nature has been condemned? The strategy adopted by Biden, which de facto aims at a regime change in Moscow, presupposes, in order to be coherent, a commitment of a completely different nature with Ukraine. At the same time, one cannot wish to put Putin before an international tribunal and be content to supply weapons to the Kyiv in drops.
China is embarrassed by Boutcha’s crimes
It is no longer Ukraine’s non-defeat that is being persecuted, it is Russia’s defeat: a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for Putin’s departure. The counterpart to the Western dilemma is Putin’s allies, beginning with China and, to a lesser extent, India. By invading Ukraine, with a mixture of extreme brutality and inefficiency, Putin questioned the “rock-solid” alliance that Moscow and Beijing had just announced: the reorientation of the world on ideological grounds that opposed the camp of authoritarianism and the camp of democracy. ?
Since the revelation of Boutcha’s crimes, China seems embarrassed. She does not want to condemn her Russian ally, but she can not ignore the outrage of the world. Like Russia, she is also trying to buy time. Without the slightest hesitation, without the slightest hesitation, she would have supported a victorious Russia. But a defeated, if not humiliated, Russia is something else.
America has regained some of its moral authority
Between its ideological vision of the world’s future and the protection of its immediate economic interests, China’s heart swings. Its trade with Russia – it is important to remember – represents only one tenth of its trade with the United States and Europe. Perhaps more troubling for Beijing is the fact that the invasion of Ukraine has at least so far produced only one winner: Bidens America. In just over a month, she regained some of the moral authority she had lost in recent years. And a day will come when American liquefied gas can replace Russian gas in Europe. What is the point of having a privileged ally if Moscow’s policy has only the main result of consolidating status as Beijing’s biggest opponent: Washington?
For the moment – the war will last, and history is far from being written – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not consolidated, but rather weakened hopes of this new international order around the “authoritarians that China and Russia are striving for.
The future of democracy is unfolding today simultaneously on the battlefields of Ukraine and in France’s polling booths.
Dominique Moisi is a geopolitical scientist and columnist for “Les Echos”.