‘De-Ukrainization’ is genocide — Biden was right to sound the alarm

Associated Press/Felipe Dana
Internally displaced people from Mariupol and nearby towns arrive in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 1, 2022.

Russian leaders began by calling Ukraine’s leaders “Nazis” to cover up their plan for a predatory war of aggression. Now they are calling for genocide. President Biden was right to sound the alarm about genocide. The world must act.

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin ramped up a disinformation campaign designed to challenge the country’s right to exist. He described Ukraine as an “artificial creation of the Bolsheviks” and called its leaders “Nazis.” On Feb. 24, Putin announced that he had launched a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Last week, while the world was learning horrifying details about the Russian military’s rape, torture and murder of civilians, this talk of “de-Nazification” morphed in the Russian state media into a chilling call for “de-Ukrainization.” 

De-Ukrainization is genocide. The world must act.

An article published by RIA-Novosti on April 5 repeated Putin’s claim that “Ukrainians are an artificial anti-Russian construct.” It proclaimed that “Ukraine’s political elite must be eliminated.” And it declared that ordinary Ukrainians are “passive Nazis” who “must experience all the horrors of war and absorb the experience as a historical lesson and atonement for their guilt.” Explaining that “De-Nazification will inevitably also be a de-Ukrainization,” the article issued an ominous call for “total purification.” 

This is not the first time such vile ideas have been expressed in the Russian media. There was a spate of articles and videos in 2016 and 2017 espousing “de-Ukrainization.” Economist and pundit Mikhail Khazin called for the transformation of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy into “agricultural hinterland stripped of industry and armed forces,” with “excess population” deported to Russia’s Far East. He further suggested “several million” Ukrainians would “need to be” either “terminated” or “expelled.”

But the RIA-Novosti article is different for two critical reasons. It was published amid Russia’s predatory war of aggression — while atrocities were being committed in Bucha, Mariupol and other towns, and while Ukrainian civilians were being kidnapped, deported and sent to filtration camps. It was published during extreme wartime censorship in Russia, indicating its approval by the Russian authorities.

Since the publication of the RIA-Novosti article, Russian officials have continued to signal to the Russian people — and the Russian military — that genocide is on the agenda. The day after the article came out, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, one of Putin’s advisers, declared that “Ukrainian identity is one big fake and the goal of the de-Nazification is to change how Ukrainians perceive their identity. ” Later in the week, Russian State TV Channel One featured a “discussion” about the elimination of Ukraine. 

These calls for “de-Ukrainization” are an incitement to genocide: to “destroy, in whole or in part,” the Ukrainian nation. Some international lawyers object that there is not yet enough evidence of genocide. And they are partly correct. We will need more evidence to convict Russia’s leaders and soldiers of genocide, which can be prosecuted either as a war crime (as at Nuremberg) or as a crime against humanity. But the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute also call for the prevention of genocide. And there is enough evidence right now to ask the world to act.

I come at this as a historian of the Nuremberg Trials, not as a lawyer. And from this perspective there are several things to keep in mind. First, genocide does not always look like the Holocaust. In his closing speech at the Nuremberg Trials, British chief prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross revisited the evidence about Auschwitz and the extermination of the Jews. He then reminded the court that genocide could take many forms. The method the Nazis applied to the Polish intelligentsia, he noted, was “outright annihilation,” whereas in Alsace, deportation was the program of choice. In the German-occupied Soviet Union, the technique was death by starvation; in Bohemia and Moravia, the Nazis embarked on a policy of forced Germanization. 

Second, history shows us that we should take dictators at their word. Those who incite genocide usually attempt to follow through. It is not unusual for them to publicize their campaigns through propagandists and media. Adolf Hitler had Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg and others doing this work. Putin has Medvedev and the pundits of Russian state media. Finally, the more that Russian soldiers embrace the campaign of “de-Ukrainization,” the more brutal the war will become — and the harder it will be for Russia to find an exit short of total victory or defeat. Russian society’s complacency becomes complicity in murder. 

This is not simply an academic question or a debate about terminology. We must understand Russia’s war aims to understand the nature of this conflict. Policymakers who still think that this war is about Russia’s security concerns have it wrong. Western lawyers who put forward draft peace proposals that ask Ukraine to make concessions are playing into Putin’s hands. Biden was correct that Putin’s goal is “to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian.”

The international community must affirm that there are universal values. It must support Ukraine and call out Putin’s lies. It must act to prevent the destruction of the Ukrainian nation. 

Francine Hirsch is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Tags Biden Dmitry Medvedev Genocide Genocide Convention Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war crimes Vladimir Putin

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