"Don’t Be Emotional!" (About Putin’s War Crimes)
Why this Phrase is Actually the Zero Degree of Strategic Thinking
Destruction by Russian attack of peasant village of Yakovlivka in Kharkiv Oblast, March 3, 2022. Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine
"Don’t be emotional!” is a phrase that many of us have heard when referring to the massive war crimes committed in Ukraine by Putin’s armed forces. No doubt these so-called strong and virile minds recognized, albeit sometimes with lip service, the ongoing atrocities of bombing hospitals, killing civilians in the street, attacking residential buildings or enforced disappearances. But these are only the side effects of the war. In short, for them, war crimes would be a detail of the war. We do not forget that this was already the case during the war in Chechnya, in Syria and elsewhere. In short, for them, it would be a matter of avoiding too harsh reactions from the West that would be marked by “emotion”. It would be necessary, as they say, to keep a cool head. Suffering and murder on the one hand and geostrategy on the other should be carefully separated.
This injunction to banish all emotion goes hand in hand, more often than not, with another idea: one should prepare for the future, in other words, in the mouths of those who make this recommendation, one should put oneself in the mental disposition conducive to a “negotiation”. In their minds, it is a matter of allowing oblivion to do its work, of reconciling oneself in a certain way with the enemy and returning to a supposedly “normal” situation where there would no longer be guilty and innocent, nor good and evil. Peace would be based on the neutralization of opinions. Their primary concern seems to be to leave the war behind and move on.
Such talk flourished during Assad’s, Russia’s and Iran’s war against the Syrian people: we should move towards reconciliation, which, as we know, would have meant accepting the continued power of the worst criminal against humanity of the 21st century. We see them appearing today and we know that the intention they reveal is to find a modus vivendi with Putin’s Russia, even if it means accepting concessions—again and again. This acceptance of compromise would mean putting under the carpet the most serious crimes that can be conceived and the violations of international law that would risk “cluttering” the soul. Their evocation would dissuade the aggressed nation from seeking an agreement and would keep it in search, if not of revenge, at least of reparation.
This idea can certainly be criticized from a moral point of view, but it must be shown that it is radically false from a realistic point of view. Worse still, it would lead to persisting in the past strategic mistakes that led to the war. They have allowed Vladimir Putin, for 22 years, to have a free hand for all his criminal actions.
So we have to be emotional, because it is also an expression of our values—emotion in the face of the deliberate killing of children is still part of what we are fighting for. It is probably even ultimately the basis of the legitimacy of the free world. It is also appropriate to be, because it is a necessary strategic lesson.
Emotion and strategic learning
What we experience through emotion is not something disembodied since it is based on real facts. Geostrategy is not a chamber or abstract exercise. Emotion is not unrelated to law either: what is the object of our emotions, in particular war crimes and crimes against humanity, is characterized in law. Finally, emotion not only alerts us personally, but allows us to understand the politics of a regime whose intolerable action is the source of our emotions.
It must be said again: the massive war crimes committed by Putin's forces in Chechnya in 1999-2000, in Georgia in 2008—as the European Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2021—, in Ukraine already from 2014 and in Syria from 2015 do not only move us. They tell us what is not only the policy of this state, but its very nature. Thus, the crimes are consubstantial with the current Russian regime. No one can separate, in his strategic analysis, the offensive actions of this regime from its crimes. One cannot consider “geopolitics” without taking into account the criminal actions. Just as one cannot understand Hitler’s policy without the Holocaust, one cannot understand Putin’s policy without his massive crimes.
This has certainly been said many times; to assert, as some so-called strategists who seek to excuse their past blunders or complicity do, that Putin has changed not only shows contempt for the truth, but is a disingenuous disguise for their own theses. Some of them will do it again tomorrow, once the aggression against Ukraine and the Russian war crimes there have been forgotten. In fact, they will try to make them forget, as they have done with the precedents. They will return to the so-called laws of geopolitics, where civilians are massacred in silence and where only the “great balances” or the “great powers’ politics” count. But they will have understood neither what “balance” means, nor the politics of these powers. They will have renounced the realism that they hold up as their banner. They will have abandoned all understanding of the facts—but perhaps the facts also disturb their ideology or their interests.
With this dumb assertion that “Putin has changed”, they will return to their old antiphon that there is no threat, that one can “dialogue with Putin”—or Assad—and that it is possible to find “common ground”, if not to conclude an “agreement”. Because they banish all emotion, they will have at the same time renounced any “lasting solution” which requires the capitulation of a regime that commits crimes and the judgment of its leaders. They will not prepare for peace, but will create the condition for future wars.
Emotion and the impossible return to normalcy
Emotion thus tells us the reality of the law: there are crimes that no one can forget or forgive. It also informs us about the will of the regime that commits them: who has committed them many times, will undertake to commit them again as long as he leads the country. Emotion informs us about the present, but also about the future. Behind this impossibility to forget, there is also an impossibility to trust.
Sometimes criminals, after years in prison, reflect on their actions and feel the blame. They know that no one can forgive them for their crimes and they do not ask for forgiveness. They can improve themselves and turn their lives to the good. This is never the case with war criminals in power whose crime is, so to speak, their raison d'être. To imagine that great criminals such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Amin Dada, Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milošević, for the past, and Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin for the present, can improve themselves is an illusion. That is why we must tirelessly repeat that as long as Putin is in power, he will be prone to crime and there will be no security, stability and peace in Europe and beyond until he leaves it.
Besides the fact that the “rehabilitation” of Putin and the establishment of normal relations with him would be an intolerable violation of the memory of his victims, it would inevitably lead him to equally cruel and monstrous destructive undertakings, if not worse. In the absence of forgiveness—for let us not hide it, shaking hands with Putin again during a meeting between heads of state would amount to that—it is also a warning not to commit, beyond the moral fault, a strategic fault. Not only was it guilty of seeking a re-engagement with Putin after Grozny and Aleppo or Georgia and the annexation of Crimea and the persecution, equivalent to crimes against humanity, against the Tatars of this region illegally annexed by Russia, but it was already preparing a return to normalcy. We know only too well—and we were certain to predict it—that Putin would not stop there. This is what he has been doing in Ukraine since February 24, 2022: he has not stopped and has further accelerated his enterprise of destruction, this time against a free nation in its entirety: Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
The reality is that we already hear disturbing whispers in some European capitals and in the United States. Some people seem to be in a hurry to get it over with and move on to the next stage. They are not in a hurry to save the Ukrainian civilians murdered in Mariupol, Kharkiv and elsewhere—not to mention the Kremlin’s war crimes which, in March 2022 as I write, continue in the Idlib region of Syria—but in a hurry to lift the toughest sanctions, return to so-called negotiations and resume business as usual. Some, without declaring it, are even rather inclined to ask Kyiv for concessions, such as the abandonment of Crimea or part of the Donbass, which would be a pitiful tribute to force and violation of international law. It would also arouse the emotion—indeed the most righteous indignation—not only of Ukrainians, but of all those who still have some dignity and some principles, in Europe and in the world. It would be much more: a capitulation to a destructive and criminal regime.
It would certainly undermine the legitimacy of Europe and the Alliance for decades to come. It would render futile the claim of the former to be a geostrategic power that matters and the latter to provide a credible security guarantee. This crime-laundering enterprise would also be accompanied by the laundering of corrupt enterprises by Putin’s inner circle and those in Europe, America and elsewhere who have profited from it. This would be a disavowal of the Russian dissidents who are fighting with unprecedented courage against the regime, if not a stab in the back.
It is not only emotion that dictates the imperative of not returning to normal with this regime; it is simply realism and our well understood security objectives. The temptation to forget is dangerously close to the acceptance of defeat. The banishment of emotion carries with it myopia and deafness. It is the easy way out for leaders who have neither the strategic vision nor the strength to face the conflict if not in a position of resignation.
Emotion and the understanding of crime
Emotion in the face of crime is the key to its understanding. If war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide have been declared without statute of limitation, it is because they affect the very principle of humanity and therefore everyone. When governments look the other way and do not name them, they are themselves preparing the citizens in their own countries to become accustomed to the crime. By not talking about them—in fact, this is what they have done in the face of the crimes of the Assad regime, Putin’s Russia and Iran in Syria, and of course elsewhere—they make these crimes disappear in their absolute specificity. They do not perceive in what way they are not only the harbingers of even more crimes, but also reveal the reality of the regimes that perpetrate them. War crimes are never morally insignificant, but they are not intellectually and strategically insignificant either.
These particular crimes are—as I wrote six years ago—a deliberate attempt to undermine the institutional and legal foundations of the principles that are supposed to hold the nations of the world together. When they are committed a fortiori by a major power that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, they have, by construction, an even greater impact. A power that commits them never stops there. The perpetuation of war crimes, in full view of everyone, in broad daylight, visible in the media and on social networks, even if they are pitifully denied—although less and less so—, reflects a much broader ambition. The silence towards them ends up corrupting the soul of the citizens of democratic societies. They lose all reference points. Mass murder is trivialized and the exhortations to “never again”, uttered after Auschwitz and reiterated after Srebrenica and Rwanda, become the object of sinister mockery. Resolutions are laughed at, then democracies are mocked, and finally some end up honoring the criminals.
This is, in fact, what happened.
This sinister mockery has been going on for a long time: some were still recently considering talks with Assad to reach a so-called “political solution” in the framework of a “constitutional committee”. Others had asked Putin to pressure the same Assad to mark more moderation in crime—after a million deaths—even though the regime in Moscow was also committing crimes in a massive way. Since 2014, these same world political leaders failed to recall the more than 14,000 victims of the Russian war against Ukraine before the Kremlin’s recent new offensive; nor did they alert opinion to the war that continued in the Donbass, and their condemnation of the annexation of Crimea—the fate of the Tatars being rarely mentioned—did not prevent, despite sanctions, the maintenance of economic relations between Russia and some European countries; many even hoped that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would agree to major concessions in contradiction with the stated principles of Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty—it is not clear that these pressures have completely disappeared despite the stated support for Ukraine.
Will we forget the civilians of Mariupol tomorrow? Will we forget, as in Syria, the bombed hospitals, the civilians executed in the street or on the roads to exile, the women raped by the soldiers, the children whose bodies were torn to pieces, the people condemned to hunger and thirst by the siege, the women, men and children prevented from giving a last homage and a last burial to the dead left in the street at the disposal of the rats? This is the reality of war crimes.
After the crime, Putin will become a “partner” again: some, in their abandonment of all decency and sensible judgment, already seem to envisage this.
This question goes far beyond the survival of a criminal and dangerous regime in Russia. It concerns the very nature of humanity. It concerns our soul and, ultimately, our survival. It has a strategic significance that goes far beyond the security of Europe and the world in the strict sense of the word. It is the foundation of the concept of strategy that would be obliterated and annihilated. The intelligence of the world would have disappeared.
We do not have the right. But what the law is—and the law that is its representation—is probably what many political leaders have forgotten.