The last time I wrote this newsletter, two weeks ago, the world was a different place. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and, as one of my colleagues put it “the tectonic plates of history” are shifting. There is war in Europe, none of us knows how it will end, but it seems to get worse by the day. As I write, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country; the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
I have a feeling it’s hard for any of us, right now, to even think about what has happened, yet it is on our minds night and day. What will be the outcome? Will there be a bigger war? Even a nuclear war? Will at least some humanity and sanity prevail?
That is the subject of our Inside Geneva podcast this week. Jussi Hanhimäki, Professor of International History at Geneva’s Graduate Institute (IHEID), joins us, together with Gerald Staberock of the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), and our regular analyst Daniel Warner.
Like so many of us, both Hanhimäki and Staberock admitted they were very surprised by Russia’s invasion. Back in June, Hanhimäki was our guest on Inside Geneva assessing what we might expect from the summit between Presidents Biden and Putin – how long ago that now seems!
Then, Hanhimäki said he thought Vladimir Putin wanted the United States to “leave him alone” and not complain about Crimea (which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014) and to find common ground “economically”.
Now, unfortunately, we see a different Putin, one who apparently wants much more than Crimea. “If Russia tries to occupy all of Ukraine, that’s going to end up in a total disaster and an ongoing civil conflict for years on end,” Hanhimäki told Inside Geneva. “If they divide the country, that’s just going to breed new conflict.”
Drastic consequences for human rights
So what can be done? Many have been heartened by the Russian protesters risking years in jail to voice their opposition to the war and by the overwhelming courage of the Ukrainians, who are determined not to hand over their country.
OMCT, with Staberock at its head, supports human rights work across Russia and Ukraine. “I wake up every morning and I think I’m in a different world”, he confesses. His concern is for the ordinary people of Ukraine, now fleeing for their lives, and also for human rights defenders across the region, in Russia, and beyond.
“If this moves to some form of occupation, we will certainly see torture, disappearances, arbitrary arrests,” he tells us. Russia’s actions, he fears, could set back human rights right across the former Soviet Union.
And much as we might like to hope that Russians themselves, many of whom are apparently deeply disturbed by what has happened, might oust their president, Staberock is not optimistic: “It’s just too dangerous.”
A challenge for the UN
So can the UN do anything here? Watching the events of the last two weeks, my own fear has been of a playbook like that of the Syrian war: years of sieges and horrific urban warfare, while a UN envoy flies around the world convening meetings with diplomats who only pretend they want peace… and at the end of it Ukraine belongs to Russia.
But our analyst Daniel Warner takes some hope from what we’ve seen so far: a general assembly resolution condemning Russia, in which even China, a traditional opponent of what it sees as “naming and shaming” at the UN, did not support Moscow, but abstained instead.
Then last week we had the UN Human Rights Council vote overwhelmingly to set up a commission of inquiry. Russia’s opposition to that was supported by just one other country: Eritrea. Even Moscow’s usual backers – Cuba, Venezuela, and China again – abstained.
There are moves too in the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes, and the International Court of Justice has convened, at Ukraine’s request, to investigate allegations of genocide. (By the way, if you are curious about the definition of genocide in international law, and why human rights defenders themselves use the term sparingly, take a listen to this episode of Inside Geneva.)
These measures won’t stop the Russian assault on Ukraine, but they are a sign the multilateral system is doing its work, and they do leave Moscow very isolated. "I think the UN is reacting as best it can," Warner told us.
And let’s not forget the sanctions which neutral Switzerland, in the past reluctant to get involved in, has vigorously backed, albeit after a few days of confused hesitation. The economic punishment being meted out to Russia will be devastating, tragically also for ordinary Russians who played no part in the decision to attack Ukraine.
Taken together, the UN resolutions, the sanctions, the investigations into war crimes combine to form one simple message from the rest of the world to Russia: Might does not make right.
Most governments, faced with such overwhelming international criticism, might take their errant leader aside and tell him it was time to change course. Or tell him it was time to make way for a different leader.
The opaque workings of the Kremlin, combined with unbearable amounts of speculation via social media, make it impossible for us to tell if that is happening. But perhaps it is. We hope the clearly isolated Russian president will realise, somehow, that there can be no winners, and so many millions of losers, in this war he has started.
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