“It is difficult to say what forced him to change from the profession of rescuer to the profession of war criminal.” — Dmytro Repliaanchuk, Ukrainian journalist, on a Russian firefighter suspected of committing atrocities in Bucha
Evil is hard to understand, and for most of us impossible to understand. The average man or woman lives a peaceful life, avoids conflict, respects laws and generally behaves within the boundaries of civility. Such a person cannot imagine following orders to kill or rape civilians during an unprovoked, unjustified invasion such as Russia’s in Ukraine. Violence is foreign to the average person. Most of us can’t see ourselves taking up arms or fists against anyone, unless in self defense. Even if you were in the military, you can’t imagine following orders to kill innocents. That’s why the Russian attacks on Ukraine are, in their second month, still incomprehensible. All the evidence is there — news reports, videos, witness accounts — but still incomprehensible.
In Bucha, civilians were shot in the back of the head; some were executed with their hands tied. Women were raped. Children killed. According to The Times, Ukrainian investigators have identified 10 Russian soldiers who they believe committed war crimes in Bucha.
Is it really difficult to understand why Russian troops, and the Russian military generally, would carry out atrocities against Ukrainians? They serve under the criminal Vladimir Putin, who launched the invasion of Ukraine to obliterate it as an independent nation and restore the territory to empire. It’s hard to believe that anything but evil drives the invasion and the attacks on civilian targets. I won’t hear the argument that the growth of NATO pushed Putin to take Ukraine in order to protect Russia. Nothing can justify what he has done and continues to do to Ukraine and its people. And he has only been able to kill and destroy because of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The threat of nuclear weapons allows Putin to wage his ground war against Ukraine.
This leveraging of the Russian nuclear arsenal to commit atrocities harkens to what the writer Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” — what she saw in Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi SS official who organized the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps. Arendt found Eichmann to be a bland, soulless bureaucrat who displayed not a lick of ideology as he worked toward the Nazis’ Final Solution — and Hitler’s favor. Arendt argued that Eichmann just did what he was asked to do, not because he was evil but because he saw his job as a path to acceptance and approval in the Nazi Party.
Others have disagreed with Arendt, saying she overlooked evidence of Eichmann’s obsessive belief in his mission and his awareness of his criminality. Someone could look at Hitler’s war in Europe as a great distraction from his true goal of killing Jews, a cover for his real obsession. You could see a similar pattern in Putin today, threatening nuclear war to paralyze the western powers while he kills Ukrainians.
Indeed, going back to my earlier point, it’s hard for most of us to imagine Putin-scale murder and destruction without some rationale. And yet, there’s nothing — just Putin’s desire to exert power, to kill and destroy. Nothing he says makes sense. The NATO threat? That’s an absurd claim. Nazis in Kyiv? Also absurd. Putin and Russia had an opportunity to fully join the modern world, even as an authoritarian president leading an illiberal democracy. Instead, he leverages a threat of nuclear weapons to use missiles and artillery to scrape away Ukraine as an independent state. This is calculated evil, a war of terror carried out under the nuclear threat. It’s Putin’s way of conducting business, a soulless Eichmannesque quality of evil, a certain and sickening banality to it.