When human rights groups make a call to arms, we don’t usually mean weapons. They are used to suppress dissent, crack down on minorities, and commit a litany of other abuses. By every measure, we prefer diplomacy to war. Conflict is perhaps the ultimate human rights violation, wreaking suffering across generations. Human rights are both the pathway to, and the result of, peace.
Yet there are times when an organization like mine, the Open Society Foundations, can see no other way to protect human rights in the immediate term. That was the case eight decades ago, when our Jewish founder, George Soros, lived through the Nazi occupation of Hungary. It was the case in 1995 when he supported NATO action to prevent further slaughter in Bosnia. And it is the case today in Ukraine, where his Open Society Foundations have worked to advance democratic governance, the rule of law, and human rights for over 30 years, and where Russian aggression now threatens to reverse these hard-won gains. Only a visible defeat will force Vladimir Putin to come to the table and negotiate in good faith to end the conflict.
War is the price the world pays when a powerful nation, with military might and nuclear weapons, trashes international law and abuses humanitarian ceasefires to recoup ahead of its next onslaught. We have seen this horror film before: in Syria, in Chechnya, and in Ukraine itself, when Russia began its illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014. In the nine years that have passed, the territories occupied by Russia turned into enclaves of lawlessness and corruption. Human rights violations are rampant, and the persecution and exodus of vulnerable populations are relentless.
The devastation has now been replicated in other parts of the country. Reports of atrocities by Russian troops continue to mount. Daylight executions of whole families, whole neighborhoods. Rape, torture, and forcible abduction of children. There are already tens of thousands of potential war crimes that require investigation, which we at Open Society Foundations are trying to support with financial and technical assistance.
Painful and painstaking documentation of war crimes offer the possibility of future accountability. But existing paths to international justice are long and difficult, and new mechanisms – such as a special tribunal to pursue Putin for the crime of aggression – are politically challenging. And neither route would prevent further abuses unleashed by an imminent new Russian offensive.
Putin won’t accept peace; armed struggle is our only choice. This is why Ukraine needs more – not less – support. The narrative of the plucky Ukrainian underdog taking on Russia’s sclerotic Goliath helped to rally support across the world, but it now masks a creeping complacency among Ukraine’s allies at a time when there is a real risk the country could run out of ammunition and be overwhelmed – a blow to the cause of democracy and human rights worldwide. Already, too many people have suffered the impacts of Putin’s support for other authoritarians, of Russian interference – politically and militarily – in countries across Africa and the Middle East, and of the erosion of international laws and norms.
Expressions of alarm from Washington and NATO make clear they recognize the risks. Yet in the United States, congressional consensus on big-ticket military and economic aid to Ukraine seems to hang on the assumption that the worst is in the past. In truth, far more support may be needed as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
And the necessary sequencing is clear: stop and reverse Putin’s advance; constrain him by exposing him as defeated so that he, or those who seize power from him, enter real talks; and agree on a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s security, sovereignty, and democracy, the safety and rights of its people, and its reconstruction and recovery – including through Russian reparations.
There are times when an organization like mine … can see no other way to protect human rights in the immediate term.
It will take arms, sanctions, and the threat of future accountability to get there. All of which require an enormous burst of political energy – from ensuring the ill-gotten gains of Russian kleptocrats help Ukraine, to making the case to developing countries whose support is crucial to advance international justice.
The West cannot ignore that many other regions are suffering the consequences of the global cost-of-living crisis triggered by Russia’s actions, and are angry that a war in Europe has taken global oxygen away from other horrific conflicts. That is a valid critique, and one that must be addressed with equally bold measures to tackle debt, inflation, and food insecurity, and ensure crises elsewhere are not forgotten.
But it should not justify a lesser response in Ukraine — and to a rogue Russia that is undermining the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law across the world. If Ukraine falls, the global consequences will haunt the world for generations. America and the West must redouble efforts to stand up in its defense.
(Editor’s note: Readers might also be interested in the latest edition of the Just Security podcast, “A Year in Russia’s War Against Ukraine: Forging a US Response.”)