Russian dictator Vladimir Putin doubled-down on his disastrous war in Ukraine, announcing the call-up of 300,000 more troops last week. In response, thousands of eligible men headed for planes, trains, and the border rather than become fodder in Putin’s folly. Thousands more Russian citizens took to the streets to protest — even if it meant risking arrest.
Inside Russia, the immediate reaction to Putin’s announcement spoke to the futility of a war that has already caused enormous economic dislocations across Europe, food shortages in Africa, and untold loss and misery within Ukraine.
Outside Russia, the announcement must lead to a new international resolve to ensure that this latest gambit fails and that the rule-based international order that Putin threatens prevails. This crisis is also an opportunity for the United Nations to uphold its founding principles.
Ukraine was an imperial possession of the Soviet Union and before that tsarist Russia, freed to chart its own future only after the USSR’s demise. Putin’s troops invaded in February to reestablish Russian control, expecting the Ukrainian government to collapse quickly. Instead, the underdogs have held firm, causing tens of thousands of Russian casualties Putin is now seeking to replace.
Putin rattled his most potent sabre last week — the threat of using nuclear weapons in this conflict of his own creation — and yet the world did not tremble. In fact, if anything last week’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly showed signs of a new determination to stay the course and to begin the process of holding Russia accountable for atrocities in Ukraine.
“Ukraine has the same rights that belong to every sovereign nation,” President Biden said during his address to the General Assembly. “We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine. We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression, period.”
Biden seemed unmoved by Putin’s threats of the previous evening in which the Russian leader vowed, “With a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we of course will use all the means at our disposal.” Just in case the world didn’t get his meaning he added, “This is not a bluff.”
The reaction of Lithuania’s foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis was reassuringly typical. He told Politico, “It is an escalation, there’s no other way to put it. But what is needed from us is the old British war saying, ‘keep calm and carry on.’ He wants us to be afraid, he wants to instill fear because that’s the last weapon in his arsenal. … We have managed to prove that the policies of support for Ukraine have worked, and I think this is the point that we have to calmly say that we will carry on.”
Putin has, of course, succeeded in instilling a fair amount of fear — and loathing — in his own people. While those 300,000 troops called up are billed as “reservists” — with military experience — the truth appears to be far different. The British Defense Ministry believes it could be months before the troops are combat ready. And that “Russia is likely to struggle with the logistical and administrative challenges of even mustering the 300,000 personnel.”
Reports on the ground indicate that buses are already being loaded up in Siberia and in the impoverished reaches of Dagestan, where recruits have fewer options for escape. Among those who do have the means to flee, news reports indicate a surge in the number of Russians seeking to cross land borders with Finland or Georgia. Those with the price of a plane ticket — which are in increasingly short supply — could head for Istanbul, Armenia, or Montenegro.
“Russians are voting with their feet basically, on Putin’s regime and on Putin’s actions, especially in relation to his illegal war,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission. “We also feel sympathy with those Russian families who are fearing for their sons, brothers, or fathers who are being sent to die in a senseless war, illegal war. So we feel with these people.”
But sorting out genuine asylum seekers from possible Russian provocateurs has meant the EU isn’t about to establish a blanket open-door policy but continues to examine asylum requests on a case-by-case basis.
The Russian exodus continues as does the indiscriminate Russian shelling in Ukraine. But in New York, the diplomatic debate has begun to focus on the “what next.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his video address to the General Assembly Wednesday, urged the United Nations to create a special tribunal.
Describing the scene in the newly recaptured city of Izium, he said, “The bodies of women and men, children and adults, civilians and soldiers were found in 445 graves,” adding that many were bound and tortured before their deaths.
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” Zelensky said.
And while the Security Council’s Thursday meeting provided a forum for discussion of Russia’s crimes in Ukraine, as long as Russia exercises veto power in that body it can be little more than a debating society. (Zelensky also suggested in his speech that Russia be deprived of its seat on the Council.)
That’s not to say, however, that the United Nations can’t play a role in forming and giving legitimacy to a Nuremberg-style war crimes tribunal — an idea that is gaining some traction in foreign policy circles and was also the topic of some side meetings at the UN General Assembly session.
It may be small comfort to the thousands of Ukrainian families mourning their losses. But this isn’t only about the tragic loss of life in Ukraine. It is also about upholding the rule of law and punishing crimes against humanity wherever they occur. It is about the international community standing up against genocidal wars of aggression — again. That process needs to begin now, and the UN is a good place to start.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.