Soon we may learn more about the life, as well as the terrible death, of the “pregnant woman on the stretcher”, as we still know her. Heavily pregnant, being lifted by rescuers from the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, her photograph has been published across much of the world.
We don’t yet know her name, but we know from reliable news sources that she and her baby have since died. Her hip was crushed and her pelvis detached in the bombing, the surgeon Timur Marin at another hospital in Ukraine is said to have discovered. The infant was delivered via caesarean section, but showed “no signs of life”.
As for the mother, realising she was losing her baby, medics said she cried out: “Kill me now”. They could not save her and “more than 30 minutes of resuscitation of the mother didn’t produce results”.
And so the world has another war crime, and another iconic – a fitting word in this instance– image of war and its civilian casualties. These images are seared into our collective consciousness, and they often depict women. The most infamous remains “Napalm girl” (1972) – Phan Thá» Kim Phúc, then a nine-year-old fleeing naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.
A portrait of an Afghan girl refugee, Sharbat Bibi, with striking cobalt eyes made the cover of National Geographic in 1984, is also instantly recognisable. So is the bizarre image of an Iraqi civilian, hooded and with his arms outstretched as if in a medieval painting. Ali Shallal al-Qaisi has his picture taken by one of the American troops who’d been torturing him and others in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. All of these victims survived their ordeals: the mum-to-be and her child in Ukraine did not.
No doubt big-hearted western leaders such as Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron will be as upset as any of us to see any of the appalling images and videos of violence emanating from Ukraine. In the age of the smartphone, CCTV and satellite cameras, no war has been so comprehensively recorded as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war crimes that they illustrate invite near-universal condemnation, leaving aside the Russians’ routine dismissal of them as fake news or staged by the Ukrainians. If Putin and Lavrov are to be believed, the woman and children fleeing from the shelling of homes and hospitals in Ukraine are either actors or neo-Nazi renegades. The civilised world, and indeed many Russian people with access to the truth, don’t believe these absurd lies.
Yet the point of the barbaric image of that pregnant woman in Mariupol is that there are no atrocities Putin and his generals can commit in Ukraine that will provoke a western intervention. None.
To be brutally frank, Putin is free to slaughter as many Ukrainians as he wishes, to raze as many cities to the ground, to use chemical weapons, battlefield nuclear weapons, to oversee the complete destruction of cultural, architectural and artistic treasures, and to leave Ukraine, the bread basket of the world, as a pile of irradiated rubble, a giant Chernobyl.
Putin can destroy everything: Nato will do nothing. We know this – and Putin knows it too. We know this because western leaders openly admit as much. There will be consequences, sure, more sanctions and more references to a war crimes tribunal, more diplomatic isolation – but western leaders say Nato is a defensive alliance, Ukraine is not a member state, and to intervene would invite a global nuclear conflagration. I’d doubt it, but we seem destined to live in a state of fear of Putin.
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Meanwhile, we seem to be saying that a Ukrainian life is worth less than that of a Pole or a Lithuanian, say, through an arbitrary moral border. It’s cowardice by Nato, and Putin can see it for what it is. To borrow from a powerful speech by Tony Benn: “Aren’t Ukrainians terrified? Don’t Ukrainian women weep when their children die? Does bombing strengthen their determination? What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game for our children and just an interesting little channel for news items.”
As the Ukrainians try to explain to us, a Third World War has already arrived. Putin doesn’t care that much about sanctions. He knows he can count on China, India and others to prop up his regime if need be, to sell him weapons and keep trading. Apparently the Syrians and Belarusians are going to send troops to help the campaign – not a sign the war is going well for Russia, but one that suggests Putin has people who will help him fight a war of aggression and help bust the sanctions too.
Something adjacent to genocide may overwhelm Ukraine in the coming days, but there will be no no-fly zones, no protected humanitarian corridors, and only limited military assistance given in answer to President Zelensky’s pleas for help.
Of course, we are invited to believe that if a “toe cap” of a Russian soldier tip toes into Estonia or Poland, the full force of Nato’s wrath will be directed at Russia. You have to wonder, though, how true that actually is, given recent experience. If a stray Russian rocket or shell “accidentally” lands in Poland, will Biden order a punitive retaliation? If there’s an “incursion” by Russian militia into Estonia, will Boris Johnson order British troops to fire on them? Will Olaf Scholz send German forces east and into combat for the first time since the Second World War, with all the fresh trauma that implies?
If fear of Putin’s nuclear weapons stops us from attacking and stopping Putin now in Ukraine, why won’t it stop us from attacking him and stopping him in the future over Estonia? Until Nato frightens Putin as much as he frightens us, there will be no peace in Europe, and there will be many, many more images of war to haunt our consciences.