The armor of innocence in Ukraine

As Russia shifts from taking Ukraine to terrorizing its people, Western countries change their choices of weapons to offer the Ukrainian military.

A German soldier stands in front of a Marder armored personnel carrier during a presentation event in Marienberg, Germany, Jan. 12. The government says it aims to supply around 40 of the carriers to Ukraine.

On Friday, leaders of Western countries will gather in Germany for the third time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to coordinate which weapons to send to the war-torn country. Their possible choices, such as the advanced Leopard 2 battle tank, may matter less than the shifting rationale for them.

Nearly a year into the invasion, the original reason for the West to arm Ukraine has gone beyond the goal of ending a “war of aggression,” or the altering of a national border by force. In recent weeks, as the Russian military has lost ground and turned more to killing and abducting civilians, its use of terror has made it easier to justify the deployment of more powerful weapons in order to protect innocent Ukrainians.

“We fight for every human being, for every life,” tweeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after Russian missiles hit a nine-story apartment building in Dnipro on Saturday, killing dozens of residents.

In December, a U.S. decision to provide the Patriot air defense system – a weapon that the Biden administration once feared would anger Moscow – was seen as necessary to save civilians. “For me, this is not an escalation,” former German and NATO Gen. Hans-Lothar Domröse told RND news. It is nothing more, he said, “than the obligation to observe the principle of Responsibility to Protect.”

That principle, known as R2P, was enshrined in international law in 2005 by the United Nations to justify collective action in ending war crimes and crimes against humanity. This legal doctrine, which arose out of the world’s failure to stop mass killings in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, has elevated the innocence of noncombatants in conflict zones beyond that of the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. charter against genocide.

Raising that global norm is now playing out in Western choices for Ukraine. On Saturday, for example, Britain became the first country to announce it will deliver a Western-made battle tank, the Challenger 2. That move may influence a debate in Germany over whether to permit the Leopard 2 – a more powerful German-made tank – to be deployed. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during a Jan. 10 visit to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv that “further arms deliveries” will free Ukrainians “still suffering from the terror of the Russian occupation.”

Russia’s tactic of bombing Ukrainian cities into submission has forced new and harder choices for the West. Better weapons is one choice. But the fundamental one is whether a global principle on the value of innocence is worth defending. That will be the real debate at Friday’s gathering of Western leaders.

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