Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine represents the first interstate war in modern times where the stakes are both the survival of a state and an entire nation. In the 20th and 21st centuries, major wars and conflicts have often threatened the sovereignty of states or the survival of stateless peoples and national minorities. But this war is unprecedented in putting both at risk.
This dual existential threat explains the vehemence of Ukraine’s resistance, and is a key reason for the massive outpouring of national solidarity that has united Ukraine’s prosperous and poor, professionals and workers, civil society and oligarchs, and Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews and Muslims — and contributed to Ukraine’s surprising battlefield successes.
Genocide isn’t limited to the extermination of an ethnic group in whole or in part. In this case, it is Russia’s attempted destruction of a people bound together by an identity rooted in a relatively new civic construct — the multiethnic, multilingual Ukrainian state. And the reality of this nascent genocide is all the more reason for the West to do what it takes to prevent a Putin victory. If he is allowed to wipe Ukraine off the map, it wouldn’t just be a moral catastrophe; it would fuel a humanitarian disaster that bleeds further into Europe and only embolden Putin’s most aggressive instincts toward Russia’s other neighbors.
Over the 30 years of modern-day Ukraine’s existence, ethnic Ukrainians and national minorities gradually overcame linguistic and cultural differences (a process partly spurred by Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s de facto takeover of parts of the Donbas) and shaped a powerful civic patriotism that unites those who identify as ethnic Ukrainians with those who identify as Ukrainian through civic pride in their imperfect but democratic, free and tolerant polity. A survey undertaken by a respected Ukrainian polling group in March 2017 found that some 92 percent of the inhabitants of Ukraine identified as ethnically Ukrainian, up from 79 percent in 2001. Only 6 percent of Ukrainians described themselves as Russians.
This diverse and inclusive sense of Ukrainian identity is personified in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — a Jew who grew up in a Russian-speaking community, but whose powerful wartime leadership rests on his uncanny understanding of how to bring together the many currents that make up the modern Ukrainian nation.
Russian conduct of its war and occupation makes it clear that the Kremlin understands this political and cultural dynamic and its capacity to stifle Russian aims.
As a rule, conquering forces take steps to win hearts and minds, allay public fears, and offer the promise of security and stability. As a means of calming and reassuring local populations, occupiers typically look for collaborators who can give a local face to the new regime and try to win over the vanquished. In the territories of Ukraine captured since February, Russia has departed from such tactics. Instead of building a cadre of cooperative local leaders, or even using quislings from the rump Donbas republics and Crimea, top Putin aide and former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko is the Gauleiter of an emerging team of Russian administrators who are being recruited to run local governments and implement a policy that combines acts of genocide, terror, repression, filtration camps, the uprooting of local traditions, and the supplanting of Ukrainian culture, language and education with Russian versions.
Russian tactics aim to re-educate Ukrainians in order to rob them of their ethnic identity. This means far more than imposing Russian texts and curricula. A State Department report indicates that as many as 260,000 Ukrainian children have been separated from their parents, uprooted from their communities and forcibly deported to Russia as part of the process of “de-Ukrainization.” In all, as many as 1.6 million Ukrainians under Russian occupation have been forcibly removed to Russia, with huge numbers subjected to filtration camps, detentions, torture and interrogations. All these actions against civilians constitute war crimes.
To identify and detain Ukrainian patriots, filtration procedures involve temporary detention followed by intensive interviews in which information is sought not only about the person under concern, but information about their neighbors.
Another Russian tactic is the deliberate effort to depopulate Ukraine. Given the strong sense of national identity that has developed in the 30 years of modern-day Ukrainian statehood and the fierce civic resistance to external rule, Russia has pursued military policies that intend to drive Ukrainians from their country. According to the U.N., as a result of Russia’s aggression, there are more than 8.7 million internally displaced, most of them in central and western Ukraine. In addition, the U.N. estimates that the number of refugees displaced stands at 6.3 million, of whom 2.5 million are children. In all, this amounts to something approaching 40 percent of the country’s population.
Depopulation is augmented by the deliberate extermination of thousands of Ukrainians by occupying forces, as in Bucha and Irpin, and the murder of tens of thousands more through indiscriminate attacks on apartment buildings, shopping malls, schools and theaters. Included in this number is the near total destruction of Mariupol, a city formerly populated by half a million people that is a ghost town now inhabited by as few as 100,000.
In the aftermath of Stalin and Hitler’s murderous regimes, legal scholar Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1941 and was a driving force for the adoption of the U.N. convention on genocide. Lemkin, a native of Lviv, a city now part of Ukraine, observed that “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation … it is intended as a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the lives of national groups.” Russia’s actions clearly fit Lemkin’s definition.
Even by the narrower definition in the U.N. convention on genocide, Russian behavior meets the criteria of genocide as Russian attacks on civilians are intended to deliberately inflict “on members of the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The destruction of the Ukrainian nation and its identity through the elimination of its political, civic and cultural leaders is accompanied by the explicit suppression of its language, culture, history and educational system. All these actions are justified to a Russian domestic audience by the widespread dissemination of propaganda of ethnic hatred. Russian state and state-controlled television today is a direct copy of Radio Rwanda, spewing a steady diet of hate speech that depicts the very idea of a distinct Ukrainian identity and an independent state as a criminal form of ultranationalism and dehumanizes Ukrainians by referring to them as “worms.”
Putin’s war aims, thus, no longer focus on the defense of Russian speakers, nor the creation of a neutral and demilitarized Ukraine. Rather he is implementing a policy to eliminate Ukrainians as a nation and state.
As early as 2008, Putin told President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not a country,” laying the foundation for his eventual assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty. By July 2021, Putin had elaborated a more expansive and dangerous viewpoint in an essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” In this document, he posited the “spiritual unity” of Ukrainians and Russians and asserted that Ukrainians are part of “a single nation, a triune nation” and were artificially separated from Russia and Russians as a result of faulty Soviet-era policies and the manipulations of the West. Putin additionally attacked the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state more expansively than before, falsely arguing that inasmuch as there is no separate Ukrainian nation and its separation from Russians, there is no authentic historical basis for Ukrainian statehood. He asserted the country is the product of the machinations of foreign powers such as Poland, Austria-Hungary, by Lenin and the early rulers of the USSR, and by today’s United States and its European allies. Today, Russia is taking these pronouncements to their logical conclusion by preparing for sham referenda in occupied Ukraine to ratify their absorption into the Russian state.
To convince Russians of the legitimacy of the case for the destruction of Ukrainian identity and statehood, Putin and Kremlin propagandists further claim that Ukraine has been artificially groomed as an “anti-Russia” — a political project of the West designed to threaten Russia’s security. Given Russia’s vast advantages in military power, nuclear weapons, population, natural resources and GDP, and given the fact that Ukraine has never engaged Russian forces outside Ukrainian soil, the idea that Ukraine is a looming threat to Russia is patently absurd. Yet this idea is now a central trope of state propaganda.
Russia also has declared “denazification” as an additional key objective. When examined closely, the Russian narrative of denazification is not about the seizure of the Ukrainian state by fascists. Significantly, Russia propagandists increasingly refer to Ukrainians not as Nazis (“Natsisti”), but as little Nazis (“Natsiki”). The use of the diminutive for a vile ideology is no accident. “Natsiki” is intended not as a synonym for Nazis but as a synonym for nationalists. And nationalism, in turn, is used as a synonym for those who seek to protect a distinct Ukrainian national identity within a Ukrainian state.
By using these terms, Russian propaganda aims to transform national identity, Ukrainian culture, its historical narrative and language into a matter of ideology, and a virulently dangerous ideology at that. Thirty years of state independence have contributed to a vast cultural and artistic awakening inside Ukraine. Thousands of novels, histories, biographies, films, plays and other works of art have been premised on the idea of Ukrainian statehood and linguistic and ethnic distinctiveness. Putin’s aims necessarily mean the near complete destruction of a vast literary, cultural and artistic inheritance, on a scale not attempted since World War II.
Life for the Ukrainians now under occupation offers a glimpse of how Ukraine would look were Putin to succeed in his aim of total conquest. What would follow a complete Russian victory would be a devastated and depopulated country whose remaining inhabitants live under a totalitarian regime of political terror, total media censorship and tight ideological control.
Stateless peoples, like the Uyghur in China and the Kurds in Turkey, have long been subjected to intense pressure by states to limit or constrain their national identity and their will to statehood. These campaigns of repression have often been accompanied by significant efforts at censorship, re-education and indoctrination. Stateless peoples who preserve their cultures through private and voluntary institutions are also far less well-resourced than those with a culture and identity that has benefited from the support of a nation state. Therefore, the cultural and ideological war that Putin plans to unleash against the generations of Ukrainians who have now lived under independence will be without precedent in its ferocity.
A Putin victory would mean the empowerment of a brutal regime committed to wiping out Ukraine’s culture and civil society. Inside a Russian-controlled Ukraine, millions would need to submerge their ethnolinguistic identity, which has been deepening its roots over the 30 years since Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union. For millions of Ukrainians, Russian rule would therefore create the stark choice of cleansing themselves of their ethnicity or being ethnically cleansed. A Russian victory would further mean that the initial exodus of six million Ukrainians would be followed into Europe and elsewhere by the flight of many additional millions for whom life is intolerable.
This puts into clear relief the stakes in Ukraine’s courageous struggle against Putin’s Russia. It is the reason why the West’s commitment to arming Ukraine must not flag. Failure to support Ukraine and pressure Russia would not only permit nascent genocidal practices, deepening a mass humanitarian and human rights horror; It would embolden an aggressive, increasingly repressive Russia to menace other neighboring states. We cannot allow this to pass.
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