Putin’s genocide in Ukraine is rooted in Russian impunity for Soviet crimes
In the summer of 1941, as the outside world began to learn of the mass murders that accompanied the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill memorably declared: “We are dealing with a crime nameless.
This is no longer the case. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention based largely on the visionary efforts of Raphael Lemkin, a modern Ukrainian-born lawyer who coined the term “genocide.” Lemkin was driven by the idea that crimes committed nationwide should not go unpunished. He warned that impunity would be seen as an invitation to further atrocities. If crimes against humanity were not punished, they would be repeated.
In seeking to define genocide, Lemkin shed light on the crimes committed by the Soviet regime in Ukraine. He considered the Kremlin’s systematic efforts to destroy the Ukrainian nation a “classic example of Soviet genocide.” The central event of the Soviet Union‘s genocidal campaign in Ukraine was the murder of over four million Ukrainians by artificial starvation in the early 1930s.
The Soviet authorities suffered almost no negative consequences as a result of this unprecedented massacre. Indeed, only months after the peak of the famine, the United States granted the USSR official recognition. The outside world simply refused to listen to the handful of brave voices like British journalist Gareth Jones who tried to shed light on the apocalyptic reality of famine.
Instead of being celebrated for his revelations, Jones was shamefully attacked by his fellow international correspondents. The loudest voice was that of Walter Duranty, the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times. That says a lot about how little has been learned about the fact that this disgraced accomplice in genocide still holds a Pulitzer Prize despite calls for him to be stripped of the award posthumously.
Since regaining their independence in 1991, Ukrainians have cast off the shackles of Soviet censorship and chronicled the full extent of the Holodomor (“Death by Hunger”), as famine is known in Ukraine. During the post-Soviet era, growing awareness of the Holodomor contributed to a broader reassessment of the country’s totalitarian past.
The same cannot be said of modern Russia. Far from recognizing the famine as an act of genocide, Moscow continues to minimize or deny Soviet crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to rehabilitate the entire Soviet era and built modern Russian national identity around a cult reverence for the USSR’s role in defeating Nazi Germany. Attempts to condemn the mass murders of the Soviet regime are now routinely dismissed as unpatriotic and anti-Russian, while Stalin himself is once again openly celebrated as a great leader.
Given the complete failure to hold Russia accountable for crimes of the past, it is hardly surprising that these crimes are being repeated now. As Lemkin feared, impunity ushered in a new era of atrocities.
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The ideological foundations of today’s genocide were first laid in the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. This Ukrainian pro-democracy uprising was a watershed moment for the entire post-Soviet region. It was viewed with horror by many in Moscow, who saw it as the next stage of a Russian imperial retreat that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Putin’s response has been to enter an increasingly open confrontation with the West while seeking to reassert Russian authority throughout the post-Soviet region. In the years following the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin developed the concept of the “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian World”), that is, a community of people beyond the borders of modern Russia linked by common ties of language, culture and religion that owe their allegiance to Moscow.
As the concept of the Russian world evolved, state officials and regime proxies in Moscow began to directly question the legitimacy of the Soviet collapse and challenge the 1991 verdict. It has become increasingly common to hear prominent figures publicly deny the sovereignty and national identity of former Soviet republics or reject the whole notion of an independent Ukraine.
This unapologetic imperial agenda has been actively promoted for more than a decade throughout the Russian news space via everything from blockbuster movies and TV documentaries to opinion pieces and public holidays. Kremlin troll factories seeded social media with revisionist historical narratives justifying Russian expansionism, while an endless parade of Kremlin-hosted political talk shows prepared the Russian public for the genocide to come.
A major milestone in these efforts came in the summer of 2021 with the publication of Putin’s personal essay”On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” This historically illiterate 5,000-word treatise has been widely interpreted as a declaration of war against the Ukrainian state. The Russian dictator used the article to reiterate his frequently expressed belief that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, while claiming that much of modern Ukraine occupies historically Russian land. He concluded with a thinly veiled threat, declaring: “I am convinced that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia.
Despite these very public preparations for genocide, few observers were prepared for the atrocities that would come in the wake of the February 2022 Russian invasion. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, reports surfaced of detailed Russian plans to mass detentions, concentration camps and priority killing lists. These warnings were widely dismissed as inconceivable but were to prove too accurate.
The scale of Russia’s crimes over the past six months remains difficult to grasp. Entire towns were reduced to rubble. Thousands were executed. Millions of people have been forcibly deported to Russia. The basic infrastructure of the Ukrainian state has been methodically targeted for destruction, along with the country’s cultural heritage. In areas under Russian occupation, all national symbols and traces of Ukrainian identity are being eradicated. The world is witnessing a classic example of genocide unfolding in real time on smartphone screens and social media feeds.
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A sense of shock at the scale of Russian atrocities is understandable. However, it is also important to note that recognizable elements of the current genocide have already been underway for a long time in the regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014. Over the past eight years, Crimea and the Donbass region , in eastern Ukraine, have become human rights black zones. holes marked by the suppression of Ukrainian identity, language and history as well as the physical displacement of Ukrainians and the arrival of Russian citizens. Once again, impunity has invited escalation.
The world is slowly waking up to the Russian genocide in Ukraine. The parliaments of countries like Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all recognized the Russian invasion as an act of genocide. Others are expected to follow suit. At the same time, there is still considerable international reluctance to confront Putin’s Russia. Proponents of appeasement point to Moscow’s nuclear arsenal and stress the need to maintain a dialogue with the Kremlin in order to solve a range of global problems. Russia is simply too big and too important to be isolated, they argue.
This emphasis on compromise rather than confrontation risks further eroding international security. If Moscow manages to evade justice for committing genocide in Ukraine, other authoritarian regimes will surely see a green light. China, in particular, is closely watching the democratic world’s response to the Russian invasion and will draw the necessary conclusions for its own foreign policy.
It is now painfully clear that failure to hold the USSR accountable in 1991 was a major mistake. A Nuremberg-style trial exposing Soviet-era crimes could have eased the post-Soviet transition to democracy and prevented Russia’s return to authoritarianism under Putin.
This makes it all the more imperative that Vladimir Putin and his accomplices must now face justice. Even if they remain in power and beyond the reach of international law, nothing prevents the civilized world from holding a trial in absentia. Such an undertaking would send a clear message to the Russian people and to authoritarian regimes around the world that the era of impunity for crimes against humanity is over.
Genocide is no longer a nameless crime. On the contrary, the world community officially recognizes genocide as the most serious of all crimes. Nevertheless, that did not stop today’s Russia from plotting and carrying out a genocidal invasion in plain sight. Moscow’s audacity owes much to the feeling of impunity engendered by a total lack of responsibility for the crimes of the Soviet regime. The world cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
Alexander Khara is a research fellow at the Center for Defense Studies.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.