According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as of September, 2023 a total of 9,614 civilians died during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to a November 10 Reuter’s wire, more than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the Israeli operation. Most of the dead are non-combatants. This is unsurprising, since in urban warfare up to 90 percent of casualties are civilians. This would seem to apply especially in Gaza where Hamas is inextricably embedded within the population, whom it uses as human shields.
Dire as the reported numbers are, the reality is likely worse. Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told a congressional panel that “it’s very possible that it [casualty rate] is even higher than what’s being reported… We think they’re [Gazan casualties] very high, frankly.”
Given Gaza’s demographics, a large portion of the killed – perhaps up to 40 percent – are children. “We have in a few days in Gaza thousands and thousands of children killed,” observed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently. “Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children. Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day,” he added.
To put things into perspective, the Russian invasion of Ukraine killed some 10,000 civilians in 19 months; Israel’s operation in Gaza appears to have yielded a comparable number in five weeks.
In the Ukrainian war civilians are dying at the rate of about 500 per month. In the Gaza war the rate is up to 20 times higher.
In the first six months of their war, the Russians took considerable care to minimize damage to civilian infrastructure. Their targets were almost exclusively military assets and installations. Wherever possible, they avoided causing damage to electricity, water plants, and communications. Thus, most of the Ukrainian population continued to have access to the basic necessities of life such as water, food, shelter, energy, communication services, hospitals, etc.
Israel makes no pretenses about trying to spare civilian infrastructure. It cut off water, food, electricity, and communications to Gaza at the outset of its operation. It then ordered more than one million people in Northern Gaza to leave their homes within 24 hours, and proceeded to flatten buildings and whole neighborhoods. Pictures of neighborhoods looking like a concrete wasteland after Israeli action have been flashed across the world.
There is an obvious difference in the way Russia and Israel conduct their military operations vis-à-vis civilian populations. There is no question that Russia’s approach is far more restrained and judicious in this regard.
Why is it, then, that Putin has been compared to Hitler and has been accused of and charged with war crimes while the Israelis have been given a pass?
Clearly, there are two different sets of moral standards being applied here. The question is why.
There are those who says that Israel’s actions are justified, because its cause is just while Russia’s is not.
But are such claims true?
Israel launched its attack because it believes Hamas poses an intolerable security risk on its border and the bloody operation is necessary to ensure Israel’s safety. But here is the thing: the Kremlin also launched its invasion for fundamentally the same reason. For Moscow, a powerful and adversarial military alliance on a sensitive part of its border likewise presents an unacceptable security risk.
It should be kept in mind that a hostile NATO on Russia’s border can inflict far greater damage to Russia than Hamas can hope to directly visit on Israel. From Ukraine, NATO’s nuclear-tipped missiles could reach Moscow in minutes and potentially wipe Russia off the map. In Moscow’s eyes NATO in Ukraine represents a potential existential threat. Hamas, on the other hand, does not at this point possess either technology or capability to destroy Israel no matter how much they may wish to do so.
In any case, both Israel and Russia are moved by the same concerns. They are acting in response to what they perceive as a dire threat from their respective adversaries. Israel is responding to the brutal slaughter of its civilians by Hamas which took place on October 7. Russia is responding to the relentless expansion of NATO towards its borders.
Yet some people still have difficulties grasping the depth and seriousness of Russia’s security concerns. To see that they are, indeed, legitimate and justified, we only need to ask this question: Would the United States allow a hostile alliance led, let’s say, by China on its own border? Would we allow a China-led military block to install itself in Canada or Mexico?
We would, of course, never tolerate such a thing. The last time something like this was tried was in October 1962 when the Soviets attempted to bring their military installations in Cuba. The US, then, made it clear that it would take the world, if necessary, into a nuclear war to stop that.
Almost everyone agrees that the Soviets crossed the red line in 1962 and that the hardline stance taken by the US government was correct. By the same token, Russia’s unwillingness to tolerate NATO in Ukraine is equally justified.
In short, Russia’s fear about having a hostile NATO on its border are as warranted as that of Israel having Hamas behind the fence in Gaza.
To charge one country with war crimes while giving the other a free hand is not morally consistent. And to make the hypocrisy even more glaring, the country we condemn for war crimes is the one that treats civilians with more regard than the one whose actions we support.
The loss of honesty and moral foundation is one of the main reasons why our efforts on the geopolitical stage keep turning to ashes. Almost every major project we undertook in the past couple of decades has turned out to be a disaster: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen…
Ukraine is the latest nation whose ruin we have brought about. We did this by cynically using Kyiv as a proxy in the misguided war against Russia, a country which posed no threat to the United States.
Sadly, the Ukrainian tragedy was predictable to those with clear moral vision and understanding of geopolitics.
“The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked,” predicted Professor John Mearsheimer back in 2015 in his now famous lecture.
It is because of our leadership’s moral blindness that we chose to take Ukraine down that path. Even as they watched Ukraine being wrecked, our politicians boasted that American money was well-spent because we were bleeding Russia without having to put our soldiers on the ground. But they never explained why Russia was a threat to the American people, which would have, indeed, been an impossible task. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers died needlessly did not enter their moral calculus.
Surely, only a superpower that has lost its moral compass would behave in this way. It is precisely because we believe we can ignore fundamental moral rules that we have wrought such a havoc in so many places across the planet.
Surveying all this one cannot but shudder, because it feels that there is more yet to come.