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Tetiana Ustymenko weeps over the grave of her son, buried in the garden of her house in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images
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Is Putin Committing Genocide in Ukraine?

After three months, the historical record is now clear

by
Alexander J. Motyl
May 24, 2022
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images
Tetiana Ustymenko weeps over the grave of her son, buried in the garden of her house in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s military intelligence service recently released a disturbing transcript of an intercepted telephone conversation between a 20-year-old Russian solider, Konstantin Solovyov, and his 41-year-old mother, Tatiana.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, Konstantin tells his mother how Russian secret service (FSB) agents go about torturing Ukrainian prisoners. “Do you know what a little rose is?” he asks. “No,” she replies. “One can make 21 roses on a man’s body,” he explains, referencing the Russian practice of giving one’s beloved 21 roses. “20 digits and the member. Sorry.”

“Aha.”

“Have you seen how a little rose unfurls, opens up?”

“Yes,” she says.

“The skin and flesh are sliced off along the bones,” Konstantin explains. “And then all the fingers and toes. The same is also done [down] there. That’s called 21 roses on a man’s body. Do you know what other tortures I saw later?”

“Why do you say you took part …? After all, the FSB agent was there.”

“Well, we captured the prisoners and brought them …”

“Well.”

“And while we waited for the heads of the torture chambers, we beat them and broke their legs so they wouldn’t run away.”

The mother is unfazed, so Konstantin goes on to describe another form of torture. “They stick a pipe up his ass and then slide barbed wire inside. They pull out the pipe, while the barbed wire stays inside. Then they slowly pull out the wire.” Mom’s response? “A fuck-up.” After a bit of chit chat, Tatiana reveals her true self: “If I were there, I’d also get a kick out of it. You and I are alike.”

If this were an isolated instance of cruelty, one could dismiss it as the shared psychosis of two profoundly disturbed individuals. But there is a large body of evidence of similar wanton torture of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers. Killing, rape, and looting have also assumed systemic forms. And, significantly, the mothers and wives of the perpetrators are in many cases fully aware of what their husbands, brothers, and sons are doing—indeed, they often appear to wholeheartedly approve, because “you and I are alike.” As one scholar who studied Russian responses to the massacre at Bucha—a town north of Kyiv, where several hundred Ukrainians were executed and dumped into mass graves—points out, “at least half of the discussion of Bucha by Telegram users I charted exhorted the Russian army to be more violent in its approach in Ukraine. A total of 144 users—again, almost half of the total—filled the discussion with racially motivated or violence inducing content.”

The case for calling what is happening in Ukraine not merely “war” or even “murder” but “genocide” rests on these and many other facts of the intentional destruction of Ukrainians as Ukrainians. Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide in the following manner:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
a. Killing members of the group;
b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Clearly, Ukrainians are a national group that the Russian regime is attempting to destroy by means of the actions identified under a, b, c, and e. Does the Russian regime intend to destroy Ukrainians as Ukrainians? More specifically, since “case law has associated intent with the existence of a State or organizational plan or policy,” does the Russian regime have such a plan or policy?

The answer is yes: The intent is there and the policy exists. For starters, Russian shelling and killing of Ukrainian civilians is clearly intentional and not the mere byproduct of military maneuvers. So, too, is the ethnic cleansing—the forced deportations of 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, to Russia’s hinterlands. There is also no military rationale for the wholesale devastation of Mariupol and Kharkiv. Both cities, and scores of other settlements, have been destroyed because they were inhabited by Ukrainians. And since Vladimir Putin determines all Russian policy, there can be no doubt that the decision to kill Ukrainians as Ukrainians is his.

Putin’s genocidal policy toward Ukrainians has a clearly expressed ideological and political underpinning. The Russian leader has repeatedly stated that he believes Ukraine is an historical aberration and that Ukrainians do not exist and have no right to exist. Dmitry Medvedev, former president and prime minister, has also gone on record saying that “Ukrainianism is a fake. It never was and is not.” It’s a small step from the view that Ukrainians don’t exist to the view that they shouldn’t exist.

One of the regime’s key propagandists, Petr Akopov, repeated Putin’s anti-Ukrainian claims on Feb. 24, the day the invasion of Ukraine began. “Ukraine as anti-Russia will no longer exist,” he intoned. Akopov expected Ukraine to fall quickly and therefore avoided recommending physical annihilation. That dishonor fell to another influential Russian propagandist, Timofey Sergeytsev, who published in early April what the historian Timothy Snyder has called “Russia’s genocide handbook.” In Putin’s Russia, opinions expressed by leading propagandists may be assumed to bear the president’s imprimatur.

The evidence of genocidal intent and policy is thus overwhelming. Before Sergeytsev’s damning article appeared, the genocide scholar Alexander Hinton had asked: “Has Russia carried out genocidal acts?” His answer: “Russia has targeted and killed civilians and reportedly forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia … Russia has also created ‘harsh conditions of life’ in parts of Ukraine … Russia seeks to seize and Russify Donbas and other parts of eastern Ukraine, where, if Putin is taken at his word, an ‘imaginary’ Ukrainian identity will be erased.”

“There is a significant risk that Russia will commit genocide in Ukraine,” Hinton wrote on April 4. “It is possible that a genocide has already begun.”

Nearly two months after Hinton’s tentative claim, we can confidently assert that the risk has become a fact. Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine.

Either Russia destroys Ukraine and defeats an irredeemably Russophobic world—if necessary with atomic weapons—or else it’s the end of Russia.

Who or what is responsible for Russia’s transformation into a state committed to the genocide of Ukrainians, and for the apparent support of a critical mass of Russian people for mass murder? For one, Vladimir Putin not only dismantled Russia’s nascent democratic institutions and created a totalitarian dictatorship; he also routinized and normalized violence, both in practice and in speech, by assassinating political opponents, promoting an explicitly imperialistic agenda, and militarizing Russian society. Russians have been bombarded with these messages for over 20 years; unsurprisingly, many see the world only in zero-sum terms: Either Russia destroys Ukraine and defeats an irredeemably Russophobic world—if necessary with atomic weapons—or else it’s the end of Russia.

Official and semi-official propagandists have played a central role in what critics of Putin’s regime call the “zombification” of Russians. Television hosts Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeyeva, the RT television network chief Margarita Simonyan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, and presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov have relentlessly spread lies, dehumanized Ukrainians, and thereby influenced an audience that still largely gets its news from state-managed television.

Russian publishers have also contributed to the demonization and dehumanization of Ukrainians. “Since 2009,” according to one study, “Russia has seen an explosion of books in the fantasy genre focused on the topic of a war with Ukraine, as well as purportedly ‘historical’ literature and general nonfiction titles discussing the ‘collapse of the Ukraine project’ and mocking the independence of the ‘nonexistent’ Ukrainian people and the ‘artificial’ nature of the Ukrainian language.”

Is there something inherent in Russian culture that promotes such cruelty and violence? Most Ukrainians believe the answer is yes. In their view, Russian culture and its most ardent promoters are both the products and legitimizers of an historically aggressive, violent, imperialistic, and bloodthirsty state. As the historian Ewa Thompson has persuasively argued, Russia is the bearer of an imperial culture that has denied agency and humanity to the non-Russian peoples subjugated by Russian tyrants since Ivan the Terrible. Matthew Omolesky of the Royal Anthropological Institute is even more direct: “If the poison of Russian chauvinism can eat its way so deeply into the brains of such sensitive writers as Pushkin, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Brodsky, if it can cause them to write ‘eulogies of butchery’ and make poetry an ‘ally of executioners’ … then imagine what it can do to the brains of less sophisticated, or more cynical, members of the Russian nation. “

Ukrainians have drawn the logical conclusion from this state of affairs. They are determined, at both the official and societal levels, to “decolonize” an independent Ukrainian culture and integrate it into both Europe and the wider world, and to remove all vestiges of Russian imperialism. Street names are being changed, monuments are being dismantled, and textbooks are being rewritten. The Russian language is also being abandoned in favor of Ukrainian—not as a governmental decree being imposed on a reluctant public, but as the grassroots legislative expression of the public itself. President Volodymyr Zelensky is playing no small role in this process with his heroic defense of Ukraine, its people, history, and culture.

As a formerly pro-Russian Ukrainian politician has put it, “After what Russia has done, we no longer have a common past. We only have different futures.” 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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