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‘Genocide’ and Putin’s War of Destruction against Ukrainian Society 

Professor Martin Shaw, author of two books on Genocide, explains how the synchronised attack on Ukraine’s people, culture and institutions, is escalating beyond war crimes

A monument in Odesa, protected against damage by a Russian invasion. Photo: REUTERS/Alamy

‘Genocide’ & Putin’s War of Destruction against Ukrainian Society 

Professor Martin Shaw, author of two books on Genocide, explains how the synchronised attack on Ukraine’s people, culture and institutions, is escalating beyond war crimes

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President Zelinskiy has accused Russia of genocide against the Ukrainian people following the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Vladimir Putin earlier used the accusation that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian speakers to justify his aggression. 

Genocide is therefore important in the ideological battle which is accompanying the war. In Vladimir Putin’s hands, the charge is designed – like the claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis – to fit the invasion into the tired narrative of Russia’s Second World War which is central to his legitimacy.

However, his genocide charge is unlikely to convince even captive Russian audiences, since many will know that the main specific allegation, of linguistic discrimination (which by itself would not amount to genocide in any case), is belied by the free use of Russian throughout Ukraine, not least in Zelinskiy’s own stirring appeal in his native language.

In contrast, the Ukrainian president’s accusation is based on Russia’s rapidly expanding violence against civilians: the World Health Organisation reports that there have been 18 attacks in which hospitals and ambulances have been damaged; residential buildings have been destroyed in many cities; fleeing families have been shot dead. A large part of Mariupol’s population is forced to live below ground without adequate food, water and heating while mass graves are being dug. Russian forces have clearly committed war crimes and the increasing destruction could involve crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court (ICC), in an unprecedentedly swift investigation, is already collecting evidence and may bring charges in due course. 

But will genocide be part of any eventual case, and – more importantly – is Zelenskiy right to highlight it in the Ukrainian cause today?

A Synchronised Attack

It is popularly believed that genocide is the intentional mass murder of a people, along the lines of the Nazi extermination of the Jews (much of which took place in what is now Ukraine), but Russia is not doing this. However, the ‘mass murder’ idea is a simplification of what genocide is generally understood to involve.

When Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term – after studying law in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv (then Lwow in Poland) – described the Nazi genocide in 1944, he emphasised that it involved “a synchronised attack on different aspects of life of the captive peoples” in the political, social, cultural and economic fields, as well as by causing death through mass killing, starvation, etc.

Today’s Ukrainians are not captive, nor have they yet suffered, at the hands of Russia, the full horror that their grandparents (along with Jews, Russians, Poles and many others) suffered through German conquest and occupation, all of which Lemkin saw as genocide. Yet, even in the first two weeks of the current invasion, it has become clear that they are experiencing a synchronised attack on their society, aiming to destroy its institutions, infrastructure and way of life, while forcing a large part of the population to flee.

This societal destruction is part of a war of conquest, but Putin does not just want to control Ukraine; he believes it should not exist. His press apparently had to take down claims that the invasion had ‘solved the Ukrainian question for ever’, which were published prematurely when in fact it was stalling. We don’t know whether he hates Ukrainians as such, but we do know that he regards a free, democratic Ukrainian society as a threat to Russia.

If his motive is not ethnic hatred but a fantastical kind of ‘permanent security’ – a term the genocide historian Dirk Moses has coined to describe common motives for causing mass civilian harm – it is clear enough that he wishes to shatter Ukrainian society and its state, not just ambitions for NATO and EU membership.  

In the face of unexpected resistance, Putin is now escalating destruction. We don’t know how far he will go to win, or even what winning means for him. Implied threats to use weapons of mass destruction, whether nukes or the chemical weapons his ally Bashar al-Assad used in Syria, only indicate the possibility that genocidal risks will deepen. The Russian campaign is increasingly developing into the kind of war in which Russia has been involved in Chechnya as well as in Syria. 

If Putin successfully conquers Ukraine, he will undoubtedly have presided over the partial destruction of Ukrainian society, not least because millions of those who have fled will not return. ICC prosecutors, if they eventually bring a case against Putin, may well stick to charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity for what Russia has done to date. Yet if this is not yet ‘a genocide’, the logic of destroying society is increasingly producing a genocidal war. If Putin further escalates his violence against civilians, the relevance of this charge will only increase.

Martin Shaw is Emeritus Professor of International Relations and Politics at the University of Sussex and Research Professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals. He is the author of What is Genocide? and War and Genocide.

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