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Why Russia’s War in Ukraine Is a Genocide

Not Just a Land Grab, but a Bid to Expunge a Nation

New graves in Bucha, Ukraine, April 2022 [Zohra Bensemra | Reuters]

With every passing day, it is becoming clearer that Russia is committing the gravest crime imaginable in Ukraine: genocide. Russian forces have ravaged many parts of the country, massacring, raping, torturing, deporting, and terrorizing a vulnerable civilian population. A chilling logic lies behind these acts of violence, one that seeks to extinguish Ukrainian national identity, wiping out modern Ukraine as an independent country through the killing and the Russification of its residents.

Correctly understanding the stakes, the United States has already committed significant resources to the defense of Ukraine. What happens on Ukrainian frontlines will determine the future of Western security. A Ukrainian victory will uphold international law in the face of a flagrant violation of territorial sovereignty, reaffirm the imperative of nuclear nonproliferation, and maintain the credibility of the United States on the international stage.

An even greater imperative remains. Yes, Russia is waging an expansionist war of conquest with profound geopolitical and moral consequences. That it is also willfully pursuing a campaign of genocide poses unique dangers and implications for Western policymakers. The United States and its allies—as well as the broader international community—must recognize the terrible significance of this violence and their obligation to stop the Russian atrocity machine in its tracks.


Contrary to common misconceptions, an atrocity does not become a genocide when it surpasses a statistical threshold of people slain. Rather, genocide is a process with specific dynamics that arises from its perpetrators’ intention to extinguish a group. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, coined the term “genocide” during the era of the Nuremberg trials. He began his lifelong crusade to enshrine genocide under international law after discovering that no relevant statutes existed to prosecute the Ottoman instigators of the slaughter of Armenians during World War I. Lemkin also categorized the Holodomor famine, which killed millions of people in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, as a “Soviet genocide in Ukraine”; many scholars argue that Joseph Stalin engineered the famine to suppress Ukrainian rebellions against Soviet collectivization and to forcibly Russify Ukraine.

Lemkin called genocide “the crime of crimes,” as it attacks the most fundamental right of a group: the right to exist. This designation has stood the test of time and has been enshrined in international law. Spurred on by the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the revelations of the Nuremberg trials, the United Nations’ legal definition of genocide as well as the mandate to prevent and punish the occurrence of genocide entered into force in 1951. Under the UN Convention, genocide is defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” No country or organization has ever fundamentally challenged this legal definition or the international community’s obligation to stop genocide.

Scholars and practitioners propose that two criteria separate genocide from other, equally condemnable, forms of atrocities. A genocide targets all segments of the population—men, women, and children—in a process that requires systematized coordination and a willingness on the part of the perpetrators to inconvenience themselves in pursuit of their heinous goals, such as by chasing victims. Second, genocides seek to destroy a group, not just harshly repress or batter it. Genocide is not achieved only by slaughter. Killing, as the UN definition of genocide clarifies, is but one way that perpetrators try to erase a group. Other actions, including rape, deportation, and efforts to wipe out the language and culture of a group, can also be indicative of a genocide. In this light, Russia’s conduct in Ukraine carries all the hallmarks of a genocidal campaign bent on eviscerating Ukrainian national identity.


For years, Russian leaders have denied the validity of Ukrainian national identity and spoken of eliminating the Ukrainian nation, in itself evidence of premeditated intent to commit genocide. Since the invasion began in February, the evidence that Russia has genocidal intentions has only mushroomed. The Kremlin doesn’t just want to conquer Ukraine; it wants to eliminate Ukrainian-ness. Of course, genocide is a charged and redolent term, recalling the systematic precision of the Holocaust and the society-wide butchery of the Rwandan genocide. Events in Ukraine do not—yet—appear to look like those past horrors, but that doesn’t make their description as a genocide inaccurate.

Genocides occur for a variety of reasons, often animated by ethnic and religious motivations. The case of Ukraine is different; Putin and other Russian leaders have fixated on the threat posed by Ukrainian national identity since at least 2014, when pro-democracy protests toppled a Russian-aligned government in Kyiv and precipitated a Russian invasion. Those events accelerated irreversible transformations in what it meant to be Ukrainian, melding notions of traditional Ukrainian heritage with values of freedom, self-organization, growing pluralism, and multiculturalism—values at odds with an increasingly autocratic Russia. More than denying Ukraine its sovereign nationhood, Moscow’s attempt to destroy Ukraine’s identity hints at its own brittle insecurity and unwillingness to coexist with such a national group next door.

Russian forces in Ukraine have conducted point-blank executions of civilians, committed torture and rape, and deliberately bombed residential complexes. These acts have targeted Ukrainians across all gender, age, and social demographics, going far beyond isolated incidents of battlefield frenzy. The Russian military has also killed and maimed children, authorizing violence against those who pose little military threat. For example, the infamous March bombing of a theater in the city of Mariupol killed as many as 600 people, including many children, and injured hundreds more. Russia bombed the structure even though it was a known civilian shelter, outside of which was written in huge letters, visible from the sky, “Children.” In the town of Bucha alone, local authorities have claimed that Russian forces killed 31 children under the age of 18.

In many other ways, Russian acts fit the various criteria of the UN definition of genocide. Accounts of the rape of adults and children point to a Russian effort to destroy the ability of Ukrainians to bring future generations into the world. In another warning signal, Russia has repeatedly prevented civilians from fleeing targeted areas and blocked internationally brokered evacuations, indicating that Russian forces are not simply satisfied with taking land and looting towns. The so-called Islamic State chased the Yazidis up Mount Sinjar in Iraq in 2014 during the genocide aimed at the minority group. Similarly, Russian actions suggest that the violence is motivated by a desire to eliminate a troublesome population, and specifically to eradicate those they cannot “de-Ukrainize.” In April, the Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti explicitly defined this genocidal goal, stating that “de-Nazification will inevitably include de-Ukrainization,” that Ukrainian desires for independence veiled the country’s true “Nazism,” and that “Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct” that must be eliminated.

Russian forces have held fleeing civilians in so-called filtration camps (a term that harks back to Soviet camps set up during and after World War II to screen soldiers and civilians for their loyalty to the state) designed to weed out those who cannot be forcibly Russified, that is, those who will not accept the Kremlin’s propagandistic claims that Ukrainian national identity is an artificial construct. Reports from human rights organizations, the U.S. State Department, and numerous media outlets claim that Russian authorities mark for death, disappearance, or torture those detainees deemed irredeemably Ukrainian.

To achieve their destructive aims, genocides require an exceptionally high degree of coordination. Famously, a constellation of administrative bureaucracies carried out the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers and civilians are currently working to eliminate those the Kremlin sees as unamenable to Russification. According to U.S. officials, the Kremlin prepared plans for the filtration camps ahead of the full-scale invasion in late February, offering more evidence of the premeditated and systematic character of Russia’s self-described campaign of “de-Ukrainization.” Since the invasion, Russian officials have set about dismantling Ukrainian educational systems, erasing the Ukrainian language, wiping out Ukrainian history in occupied areas, and legalizing the adoption of trafficked Ukrainian children deported to Russia. Russia’s forced deportation of approximately 1.9 million Ukrainians—with Russian officials themselves confirming that 307,423 Ukrainian children have been fast-tracked for adoption by Russian parents—fulfills another clear criterion for genocide.

Waiting in Russian-occupied Mariupol, Ukraine, May 2022 [Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters]

Moscow’s desire to extinguish Ukrainians as a national group helps explain the confounding behavior of its forces. As cholera outbreaks gripped Mariupol in June, Russian occupation authorities prioritized making minuscule changes to Ukrainian language road signs over delivering humanitarian aid to the civilians they were ostensibly rescuing from a “fascist” Ukrainian regime. As Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general, reflected in June after Russian missiles hit a kindergarten and an apartment building in Kyiv, “It makes no sense.” But such acts of wanton violence do make a horrific kind of sense when understood as part of a genocidal campaign.

As in other cases of genocide, large numbers of ordinary Russians participate in their country’s campaign. Those responsible don’t just include the people who conduct the killing (mostly soldiers). There are also the organizers of the genocide: Russian bureaucrats, officials serving in the administration of occupied areas, military recruiters, planners, and advisers, and consular officers and people working in children’s services who facilitate the deportations. The authorizers of the genocide range from Russian President Vladimir Putin at the very top to field commanders signing off on genocidal battlefield directives. The genocide has been enabled by top Russian Orthodox religious leaders who have blessed the war and commentators on state media who dehumanize Ukrainians and routinely call for their extermination. No genocide takes place without bystanders, who may not approve of the Russian government’s actions but do little to stop them.

Genocide requires the perpetrators to view their victims as less than human. Russian news media reports and social media posts brim with justifications of violence against Ukrainians, which is no longer seen as an unfortunate cost of the war but as something to be desired. Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Russia’s space agency, exemplified this trend when in June on Twitter and Telegram he demanded that Russia “put an end” to Ukrainians, describing them as “an existential threat to the Russian people, Russian history, Russian language, and Russian civilians.” He continued: “Let’s get this over with. Once and forever. For our grandchildren.”


All signs point to a coordinated, systematic bid to destroy the Ukrainian national identity. As evidence builds of a genocide in Ukraine, so, too, does the legal and moral pressure to stop it. Ratified by 152 countries, the UN genocide convention mandates both the prevention and punishment of genocide. Genocide is also destabilizing, as many in Washington have recognized. In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama designated the prevention of genocide a “core national security interest,” and in 2018, Congress deemed that genocide and other such crimes “threaten national and international security.”

Beyond recognizing the security implications of genocide, the White House has also been more willing to describe violence against particular groups in stark terms. U.S. President Joe Biden has been praised for describing ongoing atrocities in China (against the Uyghurs), Myanmar (against the Rohingya), and Ukraine as genocide. This rhetorical clarity is emerging as a signature component of his foreign policy platform, but it also has several implications for the U.S. response to Russia’s genocide against Ukrainians.

Genocides only end, one way or the other, in total victory. The devastating campaigns in southwestern Africa from 1904 to 1907 by German military forces against the Herero and Nama peoples and by Stalin against Ukrainians in the Soviet Union were so successful in crushing their intended targets that they largely escaped international attention at the time. In other cases, victims successfully fought back. The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s military victory in the Rwandan civil war brought an end to the country’s 1994 genocide. Decisive outside interventions have brought an end to genocides as well, from the defeat of Hitler in World War II to the Vietnamese toppling of the brutal Khmer Rouge dictatorship in Cambodia in 1979.

Policymakers in the United States, the West, and beyond must face the stark reality of the Kremlin’s true intentions. The fact of genocide in Ukraine fundamentally changes the policy options available. Typical diplomatic strategies, cease-fires, and negotiations over territory do not stop genocidal wars. The West learned this lesson in countering Hitler’s aggression and atrocities and must remember it again.


The West can avoid an escalatory spiral—with NATO troop deployments to Ukraine, for instance, and the potential use of nuclear weapons—while still helping Ukraine halt the genocide. Western governments must treat Russian negotiations about cease-fires with particular skepticism, as every day of extra time allows Russian forces to consolidate their grip on occupied territories and deploy a ruthless campaign of Russification. The Kremlin cannot be shamed into stopping, but consistent and coordinated messaging regarding Russia’s genocidal neocolonialism may discourage African, Asian, and Middle Eastern governments from direct collaboration with Russia.

Conventional policies aimed at protecting civilians will achieve only limited success in the context of a genocide. Many Ukrainian women and children are returning to Ukraine as EU countries scale back refugee services; they add to the pool of civilians vulnerable to attack. Western governments should help Ukraine with anti-trafficking initiatives related to children, for instance, by funding and providing training for Ukrainian preventive services to work to stop Russian deportations. And they should implement related deterrence efforts, such as the United Kingdom’s new wave of sanctions on Russia for the “barbaric treatment of children.”

Governments should also address the networks of people who abet the genocide, drawing from efforts such as the United Kingdom’s recent sanctions against Russian “perpetrators and enablers,” which broadened the scope of those targeted beyond just the killers. International courts should prosecute people involved in the genocide, with national courts exercising universal jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for serious international crimes. Perpetrators must be brought to justice, even if they are tried in absentia. Russian deserters who agree to testify in such hearings should be guaranteed that they will not be extradited to Russia. So, too, should governments seek to constrain the enablers around Putin. Blocking foreign investments by Russian businessmen, imposing sanctions, and freezing the assets of individuals should work to turn powerful figures against one another, splintering the oligarchic circles that wield considerable influence and power in Russia. Western governments should make clear in their communications that Putin is running the Russian economy into the ground, with devastating consequences for many oligarchs.

Western visa bans should communicate to low-level genocide organizers, bureaucrats, and functionaries that their actions eliminate the possibility of travel and international education opportunities for themselves and their families. The creation of the joint British, EU, and U.S. Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine, intended to assist in the prosecution of those responsible for crimes committed in the Russian invasion, was a laudable step. The group should receive broader support from among the UN genocide convention’s hundreds of signatories. Alongside these measures, Western governments can aid Russians who actively oppose the war in Ukraine—and no longer want to remain bystanders—by supporting them in efforts to stage decentralized protests that are hard to quash, providing them with secure communications equipment, and aiding local Russian attempts to rescue deported Ukrainians. Global advocacy campaigns for Russian political prisoners can help protect them while incarcerated.


All that said, once it has advanced to a certain level, a genocide can only be stopped by force. Western military assistance to Ukraine is crucial in arresting Putin’s bloody, hateful campaign. Ukraine’s military success relies on quickly acquiring a greater supply of heavier weapons. The West must embrace an unprecedented effort to transform the Ukrainian military into a NATO-caliber force in its equipment and its maintenance, logistical, and training capabilities, even as Ukraine’s army fights a war.

Policymakers would rightly note that these are mammoth tasks. But Russia cannot be allowed to continue down the path of genocide in Ukraine. Should governments allow Russia to perpetrate “the crime of crimes,” they risk unleashing a chain reaction in which Russia will be emboldened to press further with its imperial agenda and its autocratic partner China might flex its muscles in pursuit of its own territorial ambitions—at huge cost to civilian life and in a threat to the global order. U.S. President Richard Nixon memorably barked, “Double it” and “get the job done,” in response to Israeli military requests during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That spirit of determination and willingness to equip an imperiled ally will be necessary to halt the terrible destruction and the attempted erasure of a nation, to stop a genocide in motion.


(c) 2022, Foreign Affairs


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