Russia may be paving the way for the gravest war crime of all

The Kremlin is seeking to eradicate the very idea of Ukrainian identity

April 09, 2022
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A destroyed building in Bucha Raion, Ukraine. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy Stock Photo

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After humiliation in the opening weeks of its war against Ukraine, the Kremlin has signalled a change in its goals.

In recent days, the Russian army seems to have withdrawn from, or been forced out of, northern Ukraine. It now appears that the next phase of Russia’s war will focus on the country’s east, particularly the Donetsk region, parts of which have been under Russian control since 2014.

Reports suggest that Putin may hope for the chance to declare victory of some kind in this area before Victory Day, the 9th May holiday that celebrates Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War.

But though the Kremlin has tried to sell the idea that everything is going to plan, the retreat from Kyiv is a recognition of failure, and a serious blow to the credibility of the Russian armed forces and of Putin personally.

As the Russian army is pushed back, evidence of what they have done to occupied towns is being revealed. Murder, torture, and the rape of civilian adults and children appears to have been widespread. Looting on an enormous scale seems to have taken place. Beyond these crimes against individual Ukrainians, the war seems to involve an attempt to destroy Ukrainian society—with Russians targeting infrastructure, schools and hospitals, as well as ordinary homes, cultural monuments and historical archives.

Increasingly, this looks less like random destruction by an undisciplined army and more like a return to the traditional brutal tactics of the Russian armed forces. The cruelties being revealed in Bucha, Irpin and many other Ukrainian towns and cities recall the crimes committed by Russian forces in the two wars in Chechnya and by Russian mercenaries in Syria.

Other actions also recall the darkest chapters of Russia’s past. There are widespread reports of Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied territories being forcibly deported to Russia, and held in filtration camps. This includes thousands of children.

If this war crime is taking place, it echoes Stalin’s Second World War-era crimes against Soviet national minorities including the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars and the Baltic peoples, who were deported in their tens or hundreds of thousands. Few of those who survived the journey to Siberia or Central Asia ever returned to their homes. In their place, populations considered politically reliable (mostly Russians) were moved in. It remains to be seen if the same approach is planned for the occupied regions of Ukraine, but it certainly looks possible.

But this is not just about the Russian armed forces repeating past behaviour. The recent series of bizarre lies about Ukraine by Kremlin-approved sources suggests something wider and more disturbing. Deputy chair of the Russian Security Council and former president Dmitry Medvedev claimed that there is no genuine Ukrainian national identity, that Ukraine has been mentally transformed into the Third Reich and that Ukrainian troops are killing their own civilians to smear Russia. The head of the state-sponsored Russia Today TV network has claimed that Ukrainians have become “engulfed in the madness of Nazism.” Most sinister of all, an article on the state-controlled RIA Novosti site claimed that Ukrainian society is Nazi because of its essential character rather than any political ideology or party, meaning that denazification requires the destruction of Ukrainian identity. 

There are several ways to read this escalation of Kremlin rhetoric. One is that it may be intended to distract and deflect from the humiliating failures in Ukraine to date. Another is that it seems designed to further legitimise the war domestically, in the face of enormous and growing casualties. Losing a husband or son in a “special military operation” of choice may be hard to accept; mourning them as defenders of Russia in an existential fight against Nazism makes the loss meaningful in a society where the memory of the Second World War is so central to national identity.

The most worrying possible meaning of these comments is that they are paving the way for genocide. Dehumanisation, the characterisation of a whole people as evil, and the need to obliterate the fake national identity that produces that evil: these are ideas that encourage the destruction of society and culture, and legitimise mass graves.

The attempt to reframe the war as an existential struggle against evil is a reflection of the genuine existential struggle Putin himself may face as instigator of a needless national catastrophe. But it also seems to signal a return to the very worst periods of Europe’s past. How Nato and the EU now respond will shape its future.