After Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022, one of the most common associations that Russians will evoke in both Ukrainians and in many peoples all over the world will not be Dostoevsky, ballet, or caviar, but rather genocide. 

Although Putin’s occupation forces commit many crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, genocidal actions against Ukrainians are increasingly being discussed. 

Here I reflect on whether it is possible to talk about genocide now and how Russian actions differ from genocides in the past. Based on a careful analysis of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), determine two possible types of genocide and justify which of them is used by Russia as a tool of imperial assimilation policy.

The ‘Cemetery’ of shells that Russia used to attack the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine in 2022. 
Photo credits to Kostiantyn & Vlada Liberov

What Is Genocide and How to Prove It?

Genocide is a systemic and organized crime. It cannot be done accidentally or carelessly. Usually, it is more complicated and difficult to prove than war crimes or crimes against humanity. In order for an act to be legally recognized as genocide, two key conditions must be met and proven:

  1. the criminals’ purpose is the intention to completely or partially destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group as such;
  2. the perpetrators had to commit one of the actions against the victims – murder, inflicting serious bodily or mental injuries, creating conditions impossible for survival, forcibly transferring children to another group, or taking measures to prevent childbirth.

Exactly the combination of these two points constitutes the content of the concept of genocide. If at least one of them is not proven, then it is about some other crime, not genocide.

Despite the fact that Russians and its army have repeatedly committed crimes described in the second point, and the entire world has witnessed this, the first component of genocide – the intent – must be proven in a tribunal or court. Until then, we can talk about genocidal acts and signs of genocide, but the court must determine it decisively. 

That is why it is very important now to collect evidence, to document appeals of Russian politicians, and actually to record the genocidal program and incitement to it, which are spread by Russian state propaganda. Equally valuable material is the testimony of the Russian military, who talk about officers’ criminal orders and, in general, about the inhumane atmosphere and setting in the Russian occupation army.

Representative Genocide

The Holocaust is considered the first systematically recognized and condemned genocide in history. After WWII, that term received international legal status, and the Nazi racial policy, which goal was total extermination of the Jews, was recognized as the greatest crime. The author of that term, Raphael Lemkin, had studied for many years the crimes, in which one group aimed to destroy another (especially those long before WWII). However, until 1948, the crime of genocide did not yet exist.

Unfortunately, genocides did not stop even after the Holocaust. Terrible massacres, in which some groups completely or partially destroyed others, broke out in Africa in 1994 (against the Tutsi in Rwanda), in Europe in 1995 (against the Bosnians of the former Yugoslavia), and then in Asia in 2017 (against the Rohingya in Myanmar).

Speaking coldly and somewhat generalized, the ‘standard’ genocide is usually called the one whose purpose is murder, complete or partial extermination. Not intimidation, assimilation, or pacification, but destruction. Actually, the Holocaust, which served as the final basis for the legal formation of the term genocide, was conceived by the Nazis precisely as ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’. That is the complete physical destruction of all Jews without exception. It is quite legitimate to call such genocide ontological or existential because it is designed to irrevocably end the existence of a certain group.

However, there is one important detail here: genocide is not always aimed at killing members of another group.

The Peculiarity of the Russian Genocidal Policy

Given that a nation or religion is not something physically visible and immutable, and that, for example, the forcible transfer of children from one group to another is not physical murder, it can be argued that genocide is also the forcible compulsion to renounce oneself, from their identity and community.

For example, if a person was stolen at a young age and given to be raised in another group, he or she has practically no chance to learn about his or her origin and affiliation. Likewise, a certain religious or national group is de facto exterminated if its representatives are forced to renounce their faith or national affiliation under the threat of death or torture and are scattered among other groups.

All of these things have been happening to Ukrainians on the territories temporarily occupied by the Russians since 2014, and especially brutally after the start of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war in 2022.

Moscow’s occupying forces and administrations encourage collaboration in every possible way. They forcibly issue Russian passports and demand public loyalty from the captured local population. This is actively facilitated by Ukrainian political collaborators and Russian agents of influence, who seek to serve themselves in front of the ‘new homeland’ and often demonstrate greater Russianness than the Russians themselves.

Simultaneously, Russians give money and government positions and publicly glorify in the propaganda media those renegade Ukrainians, who are loyal to Russia and ready to renounce their citizenship, homeland, and language. Here, as an example, we can name such odious figures as Oleg Tsarev, Kateryna Altabayeva, Serhiy Tsekov, Olga Bas, Nataliya Poklonska, Serhiy Aksyonov, Volodymyr Saldo and many others.

The destruction of Ukrainian group identity takes place on the ideological basis of so-called “Ruscism.” This is an ideology of Russian military expansionism mixed with ultranationalism, a cult of personality (Putinism), and elements of nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

A clear and unambiguous rejection of Russian identity and the manifestation of belonging to the Ukrainian nation in almost all cases ends for a person on the occupied territories with imprisonment, torture, and physical destruction. The whole world saw this clearly in Bucha, Borodyanka, Izyum, Kherson, and many other settlements that were temporarily captured by Russians and then liberated by the Ukrainian Army in 2022-2023. Similar things have happened, albeit not so massively, but continuously with Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea since 2014. However, that time the international community did not react to it properly.

Such behavior of Russians in this war is de facto assimilative genocide. They act not like the Hitlerites, who did not give Jews or Roma people any choice but death. They act ‘more generously,’ because Putin offers Ukrainians a choice: death or joining the Russian group. In this way, they destroy the Ukrainian national group according to all the criteria defined by the Genocide Convention. At the same time, they expand their national group.

Such a strategy is not something new in world history, as it was a common behavior of empires when the metropolis seized new provinces and demanded obedience and loyalty from them. Modern Russia was never able to build democracy and returned to its usual imperial form of existence, which is characterized by violent expansion of territories, assimilation of conquered peoples, and brutal destruction of all dissenters who refuse to participate in their imperial project.

To be fair, Russia is not the first empire to use genocidal practices or war crimes as a form of assimilation. The Spanish Empire (via extermination of the peoples of Latin America), the British Empire (via extermination of the Boers), the Kaiser’s Germany (via extermination of the Herero and Nama people), the Japanese Empire (via mass murders of the Chinese) and many others were guilty of this in previous eras.

But Russia is the first to do this systematically and openly in the 20th – 21st centuries after the UN adopted the Genocide Convention. Today, millions of Russians under Putin’s leadership have begun to systematically implement and justify the imperial practices of aggression wars and assimilative genocide. While the peoples of other former empires of the world are trying to explore their past, recognize the crimes of imperialism, and atone for the evil done to other peoples, Russia seeks to return to the era of empires, colonies, provinces, and dominions. At the same time, they used the material for building empires – corpses and broken destinies of the non-imperial peoples.

Thus, the real touchstone of the degree of humanity and civilization of our era will be how the world will react to the new imperialism and the inherently imperialist practice of Russian assimilative genocide.

Dr. Anton Drobovych is the Head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, the national governmental institution in Ukraine since December 2019. Before that, he directed the educational programs at Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (2019), was an expert at the think-tank ‘Institute of Social and Economic Research’ (2017-2019), and served as Advisor to the Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine (2016). In 2014, he defended his Ph.D. thesis and until 2019, he worked at the Departments of Cultural Studies and Philosophical Anthropology at the National Pedagogic University. In 2018, he finished his second education and received a Master’s degree in Law. In addition, he is an alumnus of Aspen Institute Kyiv, and the author of more than 50 scientific publications, as well as five educational courses and programs in philosophy, cultural studies, and history of culture. He has published a number of expert materials on social development, education, and culture for the leading Ukrainian media. Since February 24, 2022, he has served as a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.