The reports of Russia targeting civilian areas in Ukraine may not be surprising to most. Over the past decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin's military has allegedly killed thousands of civilians sheltering in cities across Syria.
Putin reportedly used thermobaric weapons in attacks there to save Bashar Assad's regime. The Russian army was accused of killing Syrian civilians between May and July of 2016 with 47 separate cluster munition attacks. The Russian air force also conducted massive airstrikes, allegedly targeting civilians in Hama and Aleppo at schools and hospitals.
Allegedly with Russian support, the Assad regime was accused of using chemical weapons in Douma, Syria, on April 7, 2018, reportedly killing between 40 and 50 people, including women and children. Together, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France responded on April 14, 2018, with airstrikes against regime facilities used to manufacture and facilitate the use of chemical weapons.
Some experts fear Putin might turn to chemical weapons again, this time to terrorize the Ukrainian people if his military continues to perform poorly. Many believe he views chemical weapons as a legitimate means to fight in urban terrain to penetrate underground shelters, killing combatants and non-combatants alike.
As the Russian military continues to fail in its efforts to conquer Ukraine, Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of turning to attacks against the civilian population and the use of weapons like cluster bombs and thermobaric munitions on residential areas. As a result of the Russian military's apparent inadequacies, many expect the targeting of Ukrainian civilians to increase.
The International Criminal Court announced it has launched an investigation into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Ukraine by Russia.
Everyone in the Russian chain of command carrying out illegal orders to target civilians could be prosecuted under international law. And, if Russian officers can be positively identified, some will seek to publicly name them.
If they travel anywhere outside of Russia, every country could be required to detain and deport them to the Hague. If they hide in Russia, no sanctions would be removed until Russia voluntarily sends them to the Hague.
Officials across the world will look to consequences for countries and individuals who deliberately target innocent civilians. Targeting civilians is not what soldiers do. It's what war criminals do.
At some point, the international community will ask: When do we stop Putin? After 5,000 Ukrainians are killed? 10,000? 100,000? Never? Do we take the risk of escalating the conflict with a nuclear-armed state run by a dictator?
Along with severe sanctions, the United States could act to get Russia removed from the United Nations Security Council immediately. Countries could also expel all Russian diplomats, shuttering Russian embassies in the process, while making all of those that keep Putin in power for their benefit isolated by targeting the oligarchs and his inner circle.
Putin wants to restore Russian power and prestige. The U.S. and its allies could seek to make it clear he knows that invading a sovereign country is not the path to achieve this; it is a path leading away from it.
A key goal would be to ensure that Putin doesn't push his army further westward. NATO would establish a buffer zone dividing Russia from the rest of Europe, patrolled by NATO military aircraft and air defense systems. It would clarify to Putin that an incursion into another country neighboring by Russia will not be permitted.
NATO's aim would be to not allow him to build up his forces to invade another country. Military deterrents would be accompanied by expediting the inclusion of Finland, Moldova, and Sweden into NATO if they request to join. President Putin might see that his actions have led to the very circumstances he claimed to be concerned were happening.
Putin has already deemed NATO's current sanctions "akin to a declaration of war." But NATO could look past Russia's "manufactured threats," choosing to moving forward with the defense of its member nations.
NATO could isolate Russia economically, diplomatically, geographically, and double down on military support to the Ukrainians in their effort to save their country.
Michael "Mick" Patrick Mulroy is the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. He is also a retired CIA paramilitary operations officer in the Special Activities Center and a United States Marine. He is a senior fellow for the Middle East Institute, an ABC News national security analyst, and a co-founder of Lobo Institute.