It was the week of the Bucha massacre, a town in the north-western suburbs of Kiev which returned to the control of the Ukrainian government about a month after being occupied by Russian troops.
The images that have traveled around the world document various civilian victims – more than three hundred according to local authorities. As happens in any conflict, the massacre risks not being an isolated case but of replicating itself in other parts of Ukraine.
The slaughter received extensive media coverage from Western media: not only to document the horror, but to keep the attention of Europeans high and put pressure on the governments of the continent. Certainly not that of Moscow, which through the mouth of Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov immediately spoke of “provocative anti-Russian staging”. But the opposite is true for the executives of EU countries.
Faced with potential war crimes, in fact, the capitals of the Old Continent are forced to consider proposals that have been set aside so far because they are perceived as too radical or too onerous. Like the embargo on Russian coal, oil, and gas.
These are the expectations of Ukraine and the United States: the first one because it cannot think of surviving without the external support of the Europeans; the second to favor the decoupling of Russia from the Western system. In the spotlight are the heavyweights of the EU: Germany, France, and Italy – with Paris and Rome increasingly in favor of intervening in a punitive manner on the purchases of hydrocarbons from the Russian Federation.
The European Commission immediately proposed to member states to approve a new package of sanctions (the fifth since the beginning of the crisis) that blocks purchases of Russian coal. The most reluctant to endorse the punitive move was Berlin, which requested and obtained a four-month exit period after demanding clarification of existing fossil fuel contracts.
The German government then promised to do without Russia’s black gold by the end of the year, being aware that on the energy front it risks becoming isolated. Instead, the gas embargo appears completely unlikely. The President of the Federal Republic Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained it well: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia via the Baltic Sea was a mistake but giving up gas would hurt the Germans more than the Russians.
Steinmeier has been heavily criticized for these words, even if they appear painfully unobjectionable. Berlin cannot give up Russia’s gas in a flash. Not because it would stay cold, but because its industry would stop. And industry is the social glue that holds the German nation together given that almost half of the German GDP comes from exports. And the Germans export technology, not grain, without the proceeds of which they are unable to fund their burdensome welfare state.
Thus, by selling fossil fuels to Germany, Moscow has made a sort of insurance policy. It has focused on the strategic fragility of the most influential European country but also more dependent on exports. It is true that the buyer has more influence than the seller, but in this case, Germany is a seller too.
The Kremlin must have also counted on this factor in deciding to invade Ukraine: it knew that if the Europeans cut off the gas it would risk going upside down, but it also counted that the Germans would ask for time (years perhaps) to loosen from its hydrocarbon’s dependency. The time it takes for Putin to achieve some form of victory over Kiev. And to find alternative markets for its gas in Asia.
Lastly, the fact that the Bucha massacre was completely absent from the point on the war in Ukraine by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan last Monday is emblematic. The high-ranking official of the Biden administration faced the massacre only because it was pressed by questions from reporters.
It is a sign that Washington does not want to give it centrality. Sullivan explained that for the moment the massacre does not meet the definition of “genocide”, contrary to what the Ukrainian authorities claim. The Americans have not even seen a “systematic level of deprivation of the life of the Ukrainian people”. They have already established that the Russians have committed war crimes and have claimed to have accumulated evidence to that effect.
But it will take time to qualify for genocide. In addition to a technical, precise approach, visibly aimed at removing emphasis from the fact, not allowing it to drag the decision-making process. The US could have ridden Bucha and did not: they have already called Putin a war criminal, but for the moment they do not seem to want to go any further.
The relative lack of interest in America to take it seriously to force an end to hostilities in Ukraine feeds the personal drama of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people, aware that they cannot survive the Russian shock without resolute intervention from outside.
Some have compared Zelensky to Winston Churchill in the darkest hour of the conflict between the British Empire and Nazi Germany, but probably the English statesman he most resembles is Henry V on the eve of the battle of Agincourt against the dreaded French cavalry of the time.
Just like the young English monarch, the Ukrainian president is also preparing to face the decisive confrontation of the conflict, with the Russians about to unleash an all-out assault on the south-east of Ukraine after withdrawing from the Kiev area.