Accusations (and evidence) of Russian war crimes in Ukraine

By Norman M. Naimark | March 9, 2022

Credit: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine official Facebook page

Accompanying the salvoes of artillery between the invading Russian forces and Ukrainian defenders are mutual accusations of genocide. According to the United Nations, this highly charged “g-word” means “to destroy, all or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.” Coined by the Polish-born jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1943 and introduced into international law by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of December 1948, this played a crucial role in the international conflicts over Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, and Myanmar, among others. Genocide is thought of as “the crime of crimes” and, as a result, has become central to the propaganda war between Moscow and Kyiv.

Ukrainians have long accused Stalin of genocide against them in the Holodomor, the murderous famine of 1932-33. President Vladimir Putin and the Russians virulently deny the charge, even though some four million Ukrainians died because of the Kremlin’s policies. (Some Ukrainian historians estimate that up to 11.5 million died.) In the lead up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, and other government spokesmen accused Ukrainians of genocide of “Russian-speaking civilians” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. This was, in some ways, a perverse response to the accusation of genocide during the Stalin period. Russian leaders conjured up sacral associations from the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) by combining claims of genocide with accusations that the Ukrainians are neo-Nazis and fascists. They neglected to mention that the heroic Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, was elected by 73 percent of the population, and has forebears who fought to defend the Soviet Union against the Nazis. They also omitted the fact that most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians in World War II to liberate the Soviet Union from Hitler’s grasp. Now, the offspring of Soviet heroes who resisted and overcame the Nazis are fighting the Russians for their very existence as an independent nation.

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Ukrainians also accuse the Russians of genocide and have taken their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which adjudicates disputes between countries. (Bosnia-Herzegovina partly won its genocide case against Serbia-Montenegro in 2006.) Ukrainians are rightly contesting both Moscow’s fallacious claims of genocide regarding Donetsk and Luhansk and urging the court to condemn the Russians for “planning acts of genocide in Ukraine” and for “intentionally killing and inflicting injury on members of the Ukrainian nationality.” Ruthless bombing of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces and reckless attacks on nuclear installations lend credence to that claim.

Separately, the International Criminal Court is examining evidence of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” committed by the Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk, and the rest of Ukraine, where the Russian military has targeted civilian populations, including women and children. In the cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—distinct categories of international crimes—the story is far from over. Prosecutors are collecting evidence, and the UN mandated courts will hold the perpetrators accountable. Putin’s distorted historical ruminations leading up to the invasion offer supporting evidence that the Russians do not recognize Ukrainians as a distinct nationality. Although “cultural genocide” is not covered by the courts and was not written into the UN convention, a Russian occupation would likely curtail the Ukrainian language, religious life, educational materials, and cultural life.

What does Putin mean by his expressed purpose of “de-nazifying” Ukraine? Moscow last engaged in denazification during its occupation of Germany after World War II. Soviet police, military, and intelligence services arrested and put on trial National Socialist party members, in addition to random opponents of the Soviet occupation. They imprisoned, tortured, and executed some and deported others to hard labor in the Gulag. Does Putin intend to decapitate the current Ukrainian leadership and eliminate Ukrainian cultural and intellectual leaders? Will he try to imprison or deport to Russian camps any Ukrainians who were prominent in their opposition to the Russian invasion and potential occupation? Surely that would fit the UN definition of genocide. The intent of such an action, like the Holodomor of 1932-33, would be to break the back of the Ukrainian nation. The Ukrainian warnings about the Kremlin’s potential “endgame” may well be justified. That is a horrifying prospect.

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The Allies, including the Soviets, tried Nazi leaders at Nuremberg in 1946, not for genocide, but for the “supreme international crime” of perpetrating “a war of aggression,” a crime against peace itself, a category of crime that should also be investigated by the International Criminal Court. In its unprovoked military invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939), of Yugoslavia (April 6, 1941), and of the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), among others, Hitler and the Third Reich used brute military force to subjugate European nations and establish a Nazi Empire. These attacks, frequently accompanied by trumped up provocations and false accusations, were in no way defensive and therefore in violation of international law. The destruction of the Jews, of course, was yet another part of Hitler’s aims. Putin is not Hitler; and the Russian Federation is no Third Reich. But the record will show that his unjustifiable attack on Ukraine can carry with it criminal culpability for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the evidence is accumulating too quickly.

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