Despite the shocking brutality of the indiscriminate bombing and killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russian forces, many people appallingly maintain their sympathies for Putin and his regime. The argument these apologists make is that Russia itself has long been victimized by the U.S. and NATO, chiefly through the “threatening” expansion of NATO towards Russia’s borders. They also claim that the Western alliance constantly meddles in the internal affairs of Russia and countries friendly to it.
The fact is that for decades, America and the Soviet Union fiercely jockeyed for influence around the world. Russia became America’s opponent by default following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Putin likes to point to the U.S. and NATO interventions in places like Bosnia, Iraq and Libya as evidence of the meddling he complains about. He however fails to mention that the Soviet Union itself engaged in bloody invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. All three invasions were launched to prop up friendly regimes. In recent years, Putin has followed the same script by deploying his military to bolster repressive regimes in Syria, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Putin supporters make no distinctions when they talk about America’s overseas actions. It doesn’t matter to them that the U.S.-led First Gulf War was a UN-authorized intervention to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, after Iraq’s unprovoked invasion of the country in 1990. The second Gulf War is more debatable. The entire world is now convinced that it was launched on the basis of false intelligence. The weapons of mass destruction (WMD) the U.S. and its allies claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed were never found. That is a mistake the Western alliance has paid dearly for in the form of reputational damage.
Saddam Hussein was no saint, however. He epitomized brutal rule. In 1988, he ordered the chemical attack on Iraqi Kurds who were demanding some level of autonomy from the regime in Baghdad. Iraqi air forces bombed civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabjia in northern Iraq, releasing mustard gas and sarin, a deadly nerve agent. Around 5,000 civilians, mostly women and children, were said to have been killed on the day of the attack. An Iraqi criminal tribunal later ruled that the attack constituted a genocidal massacre. Thus, while the intelligence used to launch the second war turned out to be faulty, the suspicion of WMD possession by the Hussein regime was not entirely baseless.
Putin sympathizers also fail to acknowledge that the NATO bombing of Libya began only after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which had the full backing of the Arab League. During the Arab Spring protests across North Africa in 2011, hundreds of Libyans who were agitating for political and economic reforms in their country were killed by the Gaddafi regime’s forces. Given the ominous nature of Gaddafi’s threats to massacre civilians in Benghazi who had been protesting against his increasingly repressive rule, the Arab League itself had called on the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. That was before the NATO bombing began.
The civilized world stood by and watched the slaughter of about 800,000 innocent Tutsis by members of the majority Hutu population in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Just a year after that, the world once again did nothing to stop the Srebrenica massacre, in which over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed in cold blood over a three-day period by Bosnian Serb forces as part of an ethnic cleansing effort.
These two recent atrocities, which continue to haunt the civilized world, prompted the UN to set up the Office on Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect. Protecting defenseless civilians from imminent danger to their lives, the overarching principle embedded in that UN political commitment, was the driving force behind the UN-authorized intervention in Libya. The goal was to prevent another Srebrenica-type massacre.
The U.S. has certainly had its share of unilateral actions that were taken overseas purely to serve its own national interests. Propping up dictators in Africa, South America and the Middle East, while destabilizing socialist regimes elsewhere at the same time, are prime examples.
There is a big difference however when it comes to accountability for such actions. Western political leaders routinely pay a high price for their stands on domestic and foreign policies that turn out to be widely unpopular. Hilary Clinton lost the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest to Barack Obama partly due to her support of the second Gulf War and Obama’s opposition of it. Presidents and prime ministers in Western countries are often tossed out of office for the same reason. There are few such avenues to hold leaders accountable in countries with autocratic governments, such as Russia and Syria. Despots in such places can stay in office unchallenged, sometimes for as long as thirty or forty years, even when they are detested by large majorities of their citizens.
The failure to differentiate between necessary interventions and those deemed unwarranted causes grave danger to millions of vulnerable people around the world. Critics of the Libyan intervention have accused the U.S. and NATO of creating the current instability in Libya. That stinging criticism is widely believed to have discouraged Obama from taking any action following the Assad regime’s crossing of his red line, when it allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. This intervention fatigue is also thought to be responsible for the global apathy in the face of the ongoing Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
China and Russia are simply not interested in humanitarian interventions anywhere. Russia would rather help dictators brutalize and kill their own people—as it has done recently in Syria and elsewhere. Westerners who live comfortably in law-and-order societies where their rights are protected need to be extra careful about the level of sympathy they shower on people like Putin. They provide license to such ruthless dictators to inflict unspeakable violence on millions of vulnerable people in many parts of the world.