Impunity is Putin’s middle name. Now he must pay for his crimes | Simon Tisdall

The monster in the Kremlin was surely behind the Ukraine dam explosion. Nato allies have to stop him before he blows up everything

Of course the Russians did it. Blowing up Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine last week is cowardly Vladimir Putin’s long-planned response to what he fears is the start of Kyiv’s counteroffensive. Only Russians really had the means, motive and opportunity. Only this malevolent Kremlin regime would wilfully inflict human and environmental havoc on so vast a scale.

It’s impossible to prove at this point. And, of course, Putin’s loathsome sycophants lied about it, blaming Ukrainian self-sabotage. That’s what they do, these mobsters. They lied about the Russian-supplied missile that destroyed Flight MH17 over occupied Donbas in 2014. They lied about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin lied blatantly about invading Ukraine, right up to the moment he did.

Putin, Lavrov, Medvedev, Shoigu, Peskov and the gang have been lying through their teeth ever since – even as their absurdly neo-imperial “special operation” imploded, Russia’s soldiers died in droves, Ukraine’s cities burned, and reports of war crimes piled up like tortured bodies in a Bucha basement. It’s pathological. They lie to the world, to their people, to themselves.

Where is the international fury over Kakhovka? The condemnation of US and European leaders seems almost routine, leaving who is responsible open to question. Western media politely parroted Russian lies, giving time and credence to Kremlin disinformation, as if bogus editorial balance matters more than state murder.

Wait for an independent inquiry to establish the facts and you’ll wait a long time. Russia controls access to the dam and is letting no one near. It’s unlikely Putin’s WhatsApp messages will be made available for public scrutiny. Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskiy complains that the UN and Red Cross emergency response is tentative and lacking in urgency.

Is this hiding behind an absence of instantly conclusive evidence, this reluctance to nail the lie, unequivocally call out Russia – and impose meaningful consequences – the result of war fatigue? It seems western leaders are capable only of a tired, dispirited shrug. Or perhaps they feel powerless. If so, it’s their own fault. Through excessive caution and tardiness, they’ve emasculated themselves.

From the start of this war, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, among others, have been in denial about the true nature of the monster in the Kremlin. Even now, they still pretend there is a comfortable, conventional, diplomatic way out, some means of reasoning with unreason. Fear of wider war paralyses them, even when confronted by the most terrible crimes.

Too many leaders worldwide refuse to accept that Putin has breached most (though not yet all) red lines; has never respected military, legal and humanitarian norms; and has cast Russia beyond the pale. His outlaw regime is not only intent on subjugating a neighbour by force. It is tearing up the foundations of global security.

Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington
Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington last week. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

What do Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, cheerily sidestepping the war in Washington last week, and Europe’s complacent politicians, contemplating the long summer break, really think is going to happen next? Unchecked and unpunished for his latest abomination, Putin – if Kyiv’s counteroffensive goes well – may in desperation, or from sheer bloody-mindedness, up the ante again.

Perhaps the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant will be next for demolition. The prospect of terrorising Europe with a second Chernobyl doubtless amuses Russia’s leader. Or maybe he’ll use chemical or biological weapons against advancing Ukrainian troops – then instantly deny it, naturally. Right now, impunity is Putin’s middle name.

Set aside Ukraine’s post-2014 agony for a moment. Russia’s violent, destabilising and predatory behaviour in Georgia, Chechnya, Kosovo and the Balkans, Moldova, the Baltic republics, Syria, Libya and the Sahel follows an aggressive pattern set by Putin since 2000. It includes concerted efforts to divide Europe’s democracies, bolster authoritarian regimes such as Iran and manipulate US elections.

Wake up, Joe! War criminal Putin is America’s most dangerous, implacable foe, an enemy to all the principles and values the US president upholds. And the monster thinks he can carry on indefinitely. Speaking in Warsaw last year, Biden blurted out his true feelings. Putin was a “butcher”, he said. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

Regime change in Moscow is not something the west can deliver, though it may ardently wish it. But Biden should not suppress his instinctive, justified revulsion at modern-day barbarism. More is at stake than Ukraine’s freedom. Largely thanks to Putin and his cynical Chinese partner, Xi Jinping, the “rules-based international order” that has held things together since 1945 is visibly falling apart.

International law is regularly set at naught from the South China Sea to the Arctic north. The international criminal court and world court snarl toothlessly. The UN security council is held hostage by Moscow and Beijing. Universal human rights and binding treaties are everywhere ignored. Everywhere, too, the poor, the very young, the migrant and the dissenter pay the price. Putin-style “strongman” impunity is toxic and contagious.

In flouting international law in Iraq, the US and Britain accelerated this shift. They, too, broke with the UN-underwritten postwar consensus on unsanctioned aggression. Yet even then, safety nets remained in place. The rules-based order offered an agreed, relatively safe geopolitical centre-ground. Now, after Ukraine, it seems the centre cannot hold.

It’s been clear for a while that, like it or not, Biden and the Nato allies – they meet next month in Lithuania – have to finally draw a line. A reckoning with Russia is overdue. The blowing-up of Kakhovka dam may not be quite that trigger moment. But it’s coming, because the monster in the Kremlin will not stop – yet stopped he must be before he blows up the world.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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