Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist


By the time the Kosovo war ended, I’d become more of a hawk than a dove, after years of peace marching and anti-war activism. It wasn’t an easy move. I’d likely never have made it if I hadn’t been living in the former Yugoslavia for several years, watching a slow genocide unfold while the ‘International Community’ played diplomacy with a master manipulator. Slobodan Milosevic, head of the rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro, all that was left after the wars in Croatia and Bosnia), sent his diplomats to the negotiating table with no intention of making concessions. After ten years of repression under his rule, the Kosova Albanians weren’t fooled. They refused to negotiate without an international presence. Milosevic would not have it.

I read the local and international news and talked with Kosovar friends. Every week Serb authorities found some reason to kill a half dozen Kosovars and imprison more. Then the massacres started. Drenica: 83 killed. Racak: 52 killed. Federal forces methodically surrounded and burned villages, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. Some made it across borders. Others found what shelter they could in the mountains. By war’s end, 10,000 had died.

At the request of Kosovar colleagues, I visited Kosovo, listened to their stories, reviewed photos of mutilated bodies that included women, children, and old folks. I put my colleagues in touch with the International Criminal Tribunal. And I continued my internal debate over supporting NATO intervention. Sanctions were in place, but hadn’t stopped the madness. Nor had the Kosovars’ ten years of nonviolent resistance. At the time, I wrote:

“As with Bosnia, the question for me was what should I, as a responsible U.S. and world citizen, support? There was no easy answer. Perhaps the answer was in the obligation to struggle with the question. My ethics required that, at least. I was coming disturbingly closer to supporting military action—but even as I did, I thought of young men dying and I prayed for a miracle. I considered the claim that, of the 3,500 missions conducted by NATO in Bosnia, including 850 bombing sorties, no international soldiers were killed and only a few Serb fatalities were reported, and I wondered if that was merely a justification and encouragement to violent solutions? I was as tormented by these thoughts as I was by the growing number of deaths in Kosovo.”

One thing Kosova taught me is that you have to stand up to bullies – and that requires, at a minimum, credible threats of force. As I wrote home about my ethical dilemma, a friend who knew Gandhi’s grandson, contacted him and asked, “What would Gandhi say?” The answer was that nonviolence did not preclude self-defense or defense of another. In the end, I reluctantly supported NATO military intervention. After 78 days and an indictment of Milosevic by the International Criminal Court, Milosevic capitulated and withdrew his forces from Kosovo. The Serbian public ultimately overthrew him and sent him to jail. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic sent him to The Hague, where he was tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for his actions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. He died of a heart attack before a verdict was reached.

Two decades later, another autocrat has attacked a civilian population without provocation. Vladimir Putin’s war has forced millions of Ukrainians out of the country he is destroying. Again, I am faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to support the use of force to stop him. This time, however, the bully possesses nuclear weapons and has threatened to use them if NATO steps in to help defend the Ukrainian people. Is he bluffing?

As in Bosnia and Kosovo, we helped create this monster when we did nothing to stop him in Syria or the Crimea. At a recent Capitol Hill event, survivors of the Holocaust and of Syria’s torture chambers “argued that the ongoing war in Ukraine [is] the result of the world’s failure to stop the Syrian atrocities.” President Bashar al Assad committed war crimes in Syria; Milosevic committed war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova. Putin is committing them in Ukraine: attacking hospitals, schools, and civilians in general; using banned munitions; wielding starvation as a weapon of war. Though Russia (and the U.S.) has not signed onto the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, Putin could be held liable for war crimes under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. A state could issue an indictment against him. Of course, he has to be caught first. The ICC is investigating, which hasn’t phased Putin so far, though it did affect Milosevic.

We’re back to the use of force. So far, the West has limited its support to supplying weapons and humanitarian aid, while refusing Zelensky’s plea for a no-fly zone and MiG-29 fighter planes because these could reach Russian territory and lead to WWIII. Another option not yet approved is to encourage Turkey to send Ukraine S-400 antiaircraft missile systems which can shoot down planes from the backs of trucks.

David Leonhardt in the New York Times warned:

“Putin, of course, has an interest in making the West believe that he would be angered by almost any substantive help to Ukraine. Doing so can help maintain Russia’s military advantage. The Biden administration, in turn, would be acting naively – and effectively abandoning Ukraine – by taking Putin at his word.

“On the other hand, confronting him so aggressively that he fears for his political life could set off a larger war. . . .”

Leonhardt concludes: “There are no easy answers. It is a dilemma out of the Cold War, in which both timidity and aggression carry risks.”

Where does that leave me and my ethical dilemma? More worried about timidity than aggressive action, particularly since there are steps we can take short of sending in NATO forces. Putin is a bully. Reasoned arguments will not stop him. As Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Israeli Parliament: “You can mediate between countries, but not between good and evil.”

We live in an imperfect world. Among the human population are bullies, megalomaniacs, sociopaths, and war mongers. This is not going to change in my lifetime. I am grateful there are also people like Ukrainians and their leader who stand up to the bullies, megalomaniacs, sociopaths, and war mongers – at the risk of their lives. To be true to my ethics, I must support them. We must confront the bully and give Ukrainians what they need to stop him. I say this on behalf of Ukrainians as well as Russian soldiers who are dying for Putin’s dream of Empire.

I have not killed the dove. The bullies of the world have.