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Russia’s War in Ukraine Could Become Genocide

Moscow is already carrying out ethnic cleansing.

Ibrahim-Azeem-foreign-policy-columnist11
Azeem Ibrahim
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Ukrainian police forensic experts exhume a body.
Ukrainian police forensic experts exhume a body.
Ukrainian police forensic experts, assisted by inhabitants, exhume the body of a 32-year-old resident of the village of Koropy, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 27. Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

The brutal character of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been clear even before it started. Western intelligence sources, disbelieved and derided by many, predicted that the Russians would enter Ukraine with “kill lists” of potential sources of trouble, who were to be rounded up and dealt with to render the country easier to rule.

This was the plan even when Russia believed it could win a quick victory with minimal resistance. Since that proved impossible, the viciousness has come out in other ways. Stubborn cities and points of resistance are being bombarded to rubble. Civilian targets across Ukraine are being hit with bombs and missiles. Civilians are being deported deep into Russia through a network of “filtration camps.” And where the Russian advance was turned, the advancing Ukrainian armed forces encountered evidence and stories of mass summary executions.

Ukrainians have described this as attempted genocide. It goes that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia wished to erase Ukraine as a political and national entity and to “Russify” its inhabitants—by killing some, deporting more, and reeducating others. The massacres showed only how advanced and savage this plan already was.

The brutal character of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been clear even before it started. Western intelligence sources, disbelieved and derided by many, predicted that the Russians would enter Ukraine with “kill lists” of potential sources of trouble, who were to be rounded up and dealt with to render the country easier to rule.

This was the plan even when Russia believed it could win a quick victory with minimal resistance. Since that proved impossible, the viciousness has come out in other ways. Stubborn cities and points of resistance are being bombarded to rubble. Civilian targets across Ukraine are being hit with bombs and missiles. Civilians are being deported deep into Russia through a network of “filtration camps.” And where the Russian advance was turned, the advancing Ukrainian armed forces encountered evidence and stories of mass summary executions.

Ukrainians have described this as attempted genocide. It goes that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia wished to erase Ukraine as a political and national entity and to “Russify” its inhabitants—by killing some, deporting more, and reeducating others. The massacres showed only how advanced and savage this plan already was.

I traveled to Ukraine myself to investigate the question and gather evidence. My think tank, the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, along with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights had previously investigated allegations of genocide, with pioneering work on the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

The report we produced on the allegation of genocide in Ukraine was built on three planks and three specialized teams. The first group was made up of language experts, who were able to make use of primary source evidence, including signal intercepts. The second was composed of practitioners of open-source intelligence, whose work has been vital in investigating and verifying the extraordinary number of photographs and video produced by modern conflict in countries awash with cameras. And the third was a team of more than 30 international legal specialists and scholars of genocide, who were able to compare the data gathered to statutes, history, and the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Their conclusions were damning. Russia is inciting genocide, and there is a serious risk of genocide in Ukraine.

From the first pretexts of war put forward by the country’s president, Putin, Russia has sought to deny the organic existence of a Ukrainian nation and identity; in the words of the Genocide Convention, “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Figures within the Putin government, like Vladimir Bortko, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Culture, called Ukraine an “artificial creation,” the result of movement in Russian and Soviet politics over the decades—implicitly Russia’s problem to dispose with as Russia pleases.

In July 2021, Putin published an essay title “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people—a single whole” and that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era” and “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

Russian political figures have denied that Ukraine has its own language and culture and that there is a distinction between the Russian and Ukrainian people.

Vladislav Surkov, éminence grise of Putin’s Russia and the architect of Russia’s former nonlinear war in Ukraine for years, spoke for many when he said on Feb. 26 that “there is no Ukraine. There is Ukrainian-ness. That is, a specific disorder of the mind. … There is no nation.”

This prepared the ground for the crimes that followed.

Once the war began, Russia began a systematic attack not only on Ukrainian armed forces but the arteries of the Ukrainian nation. It attacked infrastructure (water, energy, and communications) as well as health care facilities in besieged cities. Russian forces have seized granaries and expropriated food from Ukrainian stores, sending much of it to Russia. This has uncanny echoes of a previous famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor, where grain was redirected and even exported as Ukrainians starved.

These artificial shortages are intended to break the will of the civilian population to have that population abandon ideas of independence and Ukrainian-ness as well as accept Russian rule. Accompanying this campaign has been a spate of mass killings, designed for similar effect.

The most salient example is in Bucha, Ukraine, where hundreds of bodies have been uncovered. Eyewitness testimony recounts that Ukrainians were rounded up for their previous military service or loyalty to the Ukrainian state. Russia has also conducted a campaign of kidnapping and murder of Ukrainian civic officials, including local mayors in a bid to co-opt or subvert civilian authority linked to continuing Ukrainian nationhood.

One of the most distressing aspects of the war is the proliferation of sexual violence, which has become systematic and institutionalized. The extent and character of mass rape in the country is sickening. Russian rape of Ukrainian women is widely considered not only to be a cultivated weapon of war but also a form of genocidal population control. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor has collected incomplete lists of pregnancies resulting from rape by Russian soldiers.

Similarly, rape in warfare is considered genocidal if it is intended to traumatize victims so they do not seek to have their own children. Ukraine’s ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, has said Russian soldiers explicitly told women and girls who were made sexual slaves in a basement that the soldiers “would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”

Accompanying all of this has been mass deportation of Ukrainians from their homes. Conservatively, this movement of Ukrainians into Russia has included hundreds of thousands of people, including a claimed 180,000 children, according to Russia’s defense ministry. Ukrainians have been dispersed around Russia so as to share the load and prevent them from coalescing as a recognizable group with a real collective identity. Reports indicate that those Ukrainians deported to Russia have been given compulsory lessons in Russian rather proving that the Ukrainian language exists. Legation has been proposed to fast track the adoption of Ukrainian children by Russian citizens.

This is ethnic cleansing, and an International Court of Justice definition indicates that ethnic cleansing “may be significant as indicative of the presence of a specific intent [to destroy]” a population.

These actions have been traced and attributed to specific Russian units. Crimes of this sort are widespread among Russian forces, so much so that, as a United Nations panel put it when discussing Myanmar, “the vastness of the State’s involvement is inescapable.” Reports indicate that the war is being closely micromanaged by Putin. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that the highest people in the Russian state are unaware of or not responsible for what amounts to genocidal conduct of Putin’s armed forces.

The evidence is vast and growing by the week. The Genocide Convention indicates that in cases of genocide, other countries have certain responsibilities of prevention and punishment to which they are bound by treaty. These are worth discussing at length, and it is vital that other scholars and international bodies take up the case.

Something terrible is being done to Ukraine, above and beyond the ordinary crimes of an aggressive war. The evidence bears out Ukrainian claims that they are facing an actual or potential genocide. Now, the world must decide how to respond.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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