What would happen if Russia were to regroup, dragoon and arm a million men, and prevail over even the increasingly well-armed Ukrainian military? Assume Vladimir Putin topples Volodymyr Zelensky and annexes the whole of Ukraine. What would happen to the Ukrainians?
At least 9,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed by the Russians and more than 15,000 wounded, according to the United Nations, which cautions that the true count is much higher. Catastrophic flooding has resulted from a dam almost certainly blown up by Russia. Countless civilian structures, including apartment buildings, have been targeted by Russian missiles. The Russian indifference to the dangers of conducting war around nuclear power plants has been demonstrated again and again. Of course, Putin also threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons as his invasion bogged down.
So Russian war crimes have already been committed and more will undoubtedly come. But if Putin won, after losing tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s fierce defenders, how would the Russian despot treat Ukraine’s population of about 40 million? I fear he might subject them to quasi-enslavement if not genocide.
This column is the third in a series about the importance of remembering the terrible past as a way of understanding the present, whether that means combating China’s current attempts to memory-hole its genocide against the Uyghur ethnic minority or reading about the Civil War to gain perspective on today’s divisions among Americans, or about World War II to understand the implications of global threats today.
Now I want to turn to what history tells us about how dictators treat subjugated peoples, as a way of showing what the stakes are in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
We know of monsters’ ghastly record over the past century. Joseph Stalin killed about 4 million Ukrainians with his forced collectivization of agriculture and the famine it triggered in 1932-1933. Adolf Hitler directed the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust. From 1958 to 1962, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” inflicted the worst mass murder in history, with a death count of about 45 million Chinese. Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s killed 1.7 million people. Other murderous regimes include Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria over the past dozen years during a civil war, with the U.N. estimating a toll of more than 300,000 civilian victims of his bid to retain power.
We cannot know what would happen if Putin prevailed in Ukraine, but the barbarity he has already employed is a valuable gauge.
Consider that in American law, the idea of “reasonable foreseeability” is central to assigning liability for disastrous events. Tornadoes are not generally considered foreseeable, and neither are earthquakes. But slip-and-falls on wet floors in department stores are foreseeable. So is the danger posed by a drunk driver. Liability is hard to assign for “acts of God” but relatively easy, if expensive to insure against, when disasters are predictable. Foreseeable events can bring judgments of guilt, responsibility, liability for damages or imprisonment.
With Putin’s character well-known and the examples of the past century squarely in front of us, isn’t there a reasonable foreseeability that he would embark on a vengeful mass-murder campaign if he took Ukraine?
Such a horror would not surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if it comes to pass. In the aftermath, politicians and commentators should not be able to plead shock or disgust at what transpired. Putin butchering his defeated foes, hunting down every soldier in the Ukrainian military — all of that and more is predictable. As the Nazis, the Soviets and the Chinese Communist Party have acted, so we must assume Putin would act.
Which is why the West must continue to aid Ukraine militarily — with everything short of troops in combat. We know what could follow if Ukraine is defeated. We ought to be repelled by the prospect of complicity. The West must provide the weapons Ukraine needs to survive. Far from being too much to ask, it is the obligation of the civilized world to stop yet another horror from being added to the list of infamies above.
What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive
The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.
The fight: Ukrainian troops on Wednesday night intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.
The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.
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