One antidote to Russia’s war on Ukraine

As civilian casualties mount, the Kremlin’s own concerns about Russians opposing the loss of innocent life could shorten the war.

A woman waits for a train to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 24.

Soon after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, CNN showed a moving video in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. In the freezing morning, a group of civilians could be seen gathered in a circle on the cold stones of a city square, kneeling in prayer as bombs rained down around the city – including an apartment block.

As CNN’s Clarissa Ward explained: This group prayer “speaks to the state of ordinary Ukrainians here who have done absolutely nothing to deserve this, who have no quarrel with Russia, who have no desire for war or conflict, who are not engaged with the geopolitics underpinning all of this, but who will ultimately be the ones to bear the brunt ... of this major attack ... on a sovereign, independent nation.”

Another video by The Washington Post shows hundreds of civilians seeking shelter in a Kharkiv subway station. As it was, some of the first reports of civilian casualties by Russian forces came from Kharkiv. Such reports worried the Kremlin enough that the Defense Ministry claimed any videos of civilian casualties would have to be “staged.”

In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin could be very concerned about the Russian people turning against the war because of high civilian deaths in a country with a shared culture and history. In announcing a justification for the invasion, Mr. Putin said it was needed to protect Russian-speaking civilians in eastern Ukraine. That claim was quickly dismissed in the West as a type of “false flag” excuse for war.

Perhaps Russians didn’t buy it, either. The invasion did spark some small protests in Russia, according to Radio Free Europe. In Saratov, for example, lawyer Denis Rudenko stood in the snow holding a sign reading, “Putin is a war criminal.”

Foreign leaders were equally blunt about civilian causalities or were eager to console Ukrainian civilians. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel tweeted this: “In these dark hours, our thoughts are with Ukraine and the innocent women, men and children as they face this unprovoked attack and fear for their lives.”

President Joe Biden said, “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.” In early February, the United States predicted a Russian invasion could result in up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded. Many experts worry the war could morph into urban conflict, which often results in civilian casualties.

One of the newer lessons of modern warfare is that the killing of civilians – or the indiscriminate taking of innocent lives – can lead to defeat, perhaps not on the battlefield but eventually in the court of public opinion. Even terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State have had to curb their barbaric attacks on civilians because Muslim societies openly opposed such violence.

Perhaps that circle of civilians kneeling in Kharkiv were proclaiming their innocence, hoping their prayers would protect them and others like them. At the least, the image is a reminder that a world increasingly embracing protections for civilians in wartime can help end such war. Evil acts carry the seeds of their own undoing.

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