Putin’s Terrifying Warmongering

On March 8th, some 15,000 women and children lined the roads of Crimea, and Kherson Province to its north, in protest against Russian President Valdimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian women didn’t come out in force just because it happened to be International Women’s Day. They were also responding to Putin’s threat to implicate them and their children in further acts of war against Ukraine.

Putin had put the women—and the world—on alert at his March 4th press conference, where he declared that he was “not worried” by the prospect of war with Ukraine and that, were he to decide to attack, he intended to use women and children as a shield for Russian troops.

Here’s how the official Kremlin website translated Putin’s terrifying exchange with a Russian-speaking woman journalist:

QUESTION: […] Are you concerned that a war could break out?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I am not concerned, because we do not plan and we will not fight with the Ukrainian people.

QUESTION: But there are Ukrainian troops, there is the Ukrainian army.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly: if we make that decision, it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens. And let’s see those troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them—not in the front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children! I would like to see those who would give that order in Ukraine.

The translation of the first question doesn’t do justice to Putin’s alarming views. Here’s a more literal translation that retains the structure of the original Russian:

QUESTION: […] That war could begin, that does not worry you?

V. PUTIN: That [i.e., that war could begin] does not worry me, because we do not intend and will not fight with the Ukrainian people.

Putin did not say, as the official translation suggests, that he is “not concerned” by war. The word “concern” connotes a general indifference. Instead, he used the Russian word “besspokoit,” which is more accurately translated as “worried” or “perturbed.” When the journalist asked, “that doesn’t worry you?” the “that” in her question referred to the clause “that war could begin.” Putin, in his response, therefore said “[that war could begin] does not worry me.”

The qualifier that immediately follows that statement only made things worse: “because we do not plan and we will not fight with the Ukrainian people.”

As Putin knows, wars are not fought between an army on the one hand and a civilian population on the other. Wars are fought between armies. Whether or not Putin plans to “fight with the Ukrainian people” is therefore completely irrelevant to whether or not he plans to launch a war against Ukraine and its armed forces. The journalist caught him in that contradiction and promptly said: “But there are Ukrainian troops, there is the Ukrainian army.”

At that point, Putin made things still worse. Watch the video clip. He bears down on the journalist, raises the forefinger of his right hand, and proceeds to lecture her.

For starters, he says, “If we make that decision, it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens.” Recall that Putin explained his aggression in Crimea on the grounds that “Russian citizens” needed protection. The logic of that claim would have justified a Russian attack on Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, and Kazakhstan, all of which have large Russian populations. The logic of the claim that he might start a war with Ukraine to “protect Ukrainian citizens” goes much further: it justifies a Russian invasion of any country. Poland, Hungary, Romania, Mongolia, and China should take note.

And then, when it seems barely possible for Putin’s warmongering to get any more terrifying, it does. As he explicitly states, he intends to “protect Ukrainian citizens” by positioning the Russian army behind them—not in front of them, as a genuine desire to protect people from an assault would appear to dictate. In effect, Ukrainian “women and children” would serve as a shield in any armed conflict that he chooses to initiate. Putin dares the Ukrainian side to fire first, but conveniently ignores that “women and children” would agree to serve as a shield for his troops only if coerced to do so by those very same troops. In other words, Russian troops would in fact not “protect Ukrainian citizens,” but cow them into submission and then force “women and children” to protect Russian soldiers. Whether he means this literally or figuratively, I leave to your imagination, but he is clearly blackmailing Ukraine with a thinly veiled threat that resistance will mean that "women and children" will die.

I cannot think of a single world leader—other than Adolf Hitler—who would have so explicitly, so callously, and so casually declared his indifference to mass human suffering. Especially worrying is that Putin made these statements at a press conference. He was, in other words, not just speaking to Russians or Ukrainians. He was placing the international community in general and the West in particular on notice: If he chooses to start a war, large numbers of civilians will die. They may be Ukrainian, but they may also be anybody he resolves to “protect.”

Unsurprisingly, Ukrainians are terrified by Putin’s warmongering. A friend in Lviv, which is as far as one can be from Ukraine’s eastern border (or is it front?) with Russia, tells me that “people are petrified and believe war is inevitable.” So are Crimean Tatars, whose ancestral land has already been occupied by Putin’s troops and who remember Stalin’s genocidal policies in 1944, when the entire Tatar population was deported to Central Asia and half died. What if Crimean Tatars, who have already begun forming self-defense units (and some of whom have begun talking of an anti-Russian jihad), take to the streets after Putin wrests Crimea from Ukraine? How will Putin respond? His warmongering statements suggest that mass internments of Crimean Tatars in concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide are no longer inconceivable. 

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