The Biden administration’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been dominated by a series of escalating sanctions, which have damaged the Russian economy but not reduced Vladimir Putin’s appetite for raining death and destruction upon a country whose very existence he has questioned.
President Biden deserves credit for holding the NATO alliance together and getting some potentially wary European partners behind an aggressive array of sanctions. But with all the damage Russia has done to major Ukrainian cities, with bombing and missile attacks routinely aimed at civilian targets, Putin’s series of reckless decisions in entering this war have gradually escalated into actual war crimes.
In that environment, where we are now hearing reports of Russian troops carrying out wholesale executions of men, women, and children as they evacuate or are driven out of Ukrainian towns, it is time to consider the next phase of punishing Putin for the atrocities taking place under his command.
For all his rhetoric about reuniting the Russian-speaking world, Putin is about one thing and one thing only – grabbing more territory to enrich himself and his oligarch allies. He wants to leave Ukraine a bombed-out shell, a welfare state for the West and NATO to worry about, a once robust democracy left in ruins. Putin will happily gobble up Ukrainian territory in the east that is home to the second largest known reserves of natural gas in Europe. And controlling more of Ukraine’s coastline, along with the enormous shale-gas field in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, will further enhance Russia’s regional energy dominance.
What can the Biden administration and its European allies do in the face of this act of grand theft in plain sight? It can immediately begin to transition from a focus on sanctions to one that centers on reparations. There must be an explicit statement that Russia will not be welcomed back to the community of nations, nor will sanctions be lifted, until the Putin regime begins to pay for the extensive damage it has done to Ukraine’s infrastructure. (If Russia can’t be stripped of its G20 membership, make it count for nothing – let it be known there will be no meetings, no discussions, no photo ops with Putin in Indonesia later this year. Make it clear he will be treated like the pariah he is on this global stage, and see if he’s willing to show up when it’s not a staged hockey game or judo show, where he knows he can’t control the outcome.)
Putin cannot be allowed to execute a hit upon a sovereign state, to bring scenes of carnage and destruction to Europe’s doorstep the likes of which have not been seen since World War II, without being held to account. If he wants relief from sanctions, if he wants access back into the global banking system, if he wants his oligarch pals to be able to safely take their yachts to whatever foreign port strikes their fancy, then he must begin to pay up for the damage he has done.
Part of that approach must entail a discussion of bringing a war crimes case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Nothing should be off the table and every effort should be made to make it clear he will find no comfort outside whatever bunker he is inhabiting these days. The people of Ukraine and their heroic leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, deserve nothing less.
Leonidas Raptakis is a Rhode Island State Senator representing District 33 in Coventry, East Greenwich and West Greenwich. He is currently serving as President of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association which brings together legislators of Greek origin from across the globe.