Russia’s atro­ci­ties in Ukraine: war crimes, crimes against huma­nity or genocide?

Foto: Matthew Hatcher /​ Imago Images

Russia has com­mit­ted massive and grave war crimes from the begin­ning of its full-scale inva­sion of Ukraine. The webinar, orga­ni­zed on 12 April 2022 by LibMod, Chatham House, and Atlan­tic council, exami­ned war crimes com­mit­ted by Russian troops and the cri­te­ria to clas­sify them as crimes against huma­nity or even as geno­cide. 

Russia has com­mit­ted massive and grave war crimes from the begin­ning of its full-scale inva­sion of Ukraine. Scenes from Mariu­pol, Bucha, Irpin, Boro­di­anka, Kra­ma­torsk, and many more shocked the inter­na­tio­nal com­mu­nity. Mass kil­lings of civi­li­ans, tor­tures, raping, kid­nap­ping, forced depor­ta­tion, and hin­de­ring of evacua­tion and huma­ni­ta­rian convoys – all raise the ques­tion about a pos­si­ble geno­cide of the Ukrai­nian people by the Russian Fede­ra­tion. The webinar exami­ned war crimes com­mit­ted by Russian troops and the cri­te­ria to clas­sify them as crimes against huma­nity or even as geno­cide.  

Prof. Chris­tian Tomu­schat, Former Member of the UN Inter­na­tio­nal Law Com­mit­tee stated that one cannot speak of geno­cide in Ukraine gene­rally, as, accor­ding to him, Rus­si­ans do not proceed with the same bru­ta­lity ever­y­where. However, the deve­lo­p­ments in and around the city Mariu­pol at the Azov Sea meet the cri­te­ria for geno­cide, estab­lished by inter­na­tio­nal law. Resi­dents were shelled and bombed there for several weeks; the whole infra­struc­ture is des­troyed, and resi­dents are depri­ved of access to food, water, and elec­tri­city. It seems that the aim of the Russian troops is to take over and occupy Mariu­pol at any cost. Russian troops not only destroy the buil­dings in the city but also deli­bera­tely anni­hi­late the resi­dents of the city. They were not allowed to leave the city, since huma­ni­ta­rian cor­ri­dors were shelled. Only later, did the resi­dents of the city manage to leave. Hence, Russia’s intent to commit geno­cide can be deduced from this cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence. Moreo­ver, Putin denies, as stated in some of his texts and those of offi­cial Kreml media, that the Ukrai­nian nation and Ukrai­nian state have the right to exist.  

Olek­sandr Merezhko, Head of the Com­mit­tee on Foreign Policy and Inter­par­lia­men­tary Coope­ra­tion, Ver­k­hovna Rada of Ukraine, stated that, in his opinion, atro­ci­ties com­mit­ted by the Russian Fede­ra­tion in Ukraine are a geno­cide. Mr. Merezhko refer­red to the Decla­ra­tion of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine “On the Geno­cide Com­mit­ted by the Russian Fede­ra­tion in Ukraine”, which curr­ently is being reviewed in the Par­lia­ment. With this decla­ra­tion, the Verkhovna Rada is to reco­gnize the actions by the Russian Fede­ra­tion as an act of geno­cide against the Ukrai­nian nation and appeals to all inter­na­tio­nal orga­niza­ti­ons and par­lia­ments to reco­gnize Russian atro­ci­ties as geno­cide against the Ukrai­nian people. For Ukrai­ni­ans, the biggest chall­enge now is to prove the intent of the Russian Fede­ra­tion to destroy Ukrai­ni­ans as a whole or in part. Russian poli­ti­ci­ans, inclu­ding Mr. Putin, don’t openly state their intent to destroy Ukrai­ni­ans because they are Ukrai­ni­ans. Putin is using euphe­misms, talking about “den­a­zi­fi­ca­tion” and that “Ukrai­ni­ans and Rus­si­ans are the same people”. However, Russian pro­pa­ganda and hatred pur­po­sely fuelled by it, point clearly to the geno­ci­dal intent. 

John Herbst, Senior Direc­tor of the Eurasia Center, Atlan­tic Council, and Former US Ambassa­dor to Ukraine, stated that Russian atro­ci­ties in Ukraine must be studied pre­cis­ely, while Mariu­pol must be con­side­red as a “ground zero“. The article in RIA Novosti, published on 3 April, might be a turning point in proving the geno­ci­dal intent. It depicts Russia’s inten­tion to “den­a­zify“ Ukraine, wipe out the Ukrai­ni­ans, put them in labor camps, and re-educate them. The intent of geno­cide can also be seen in Russian media and in Putin’s and Medvedev’s claims. These mes­sa­ges fuel hatred in Russian society. Since the outrage about Russia’s atro­ci­ties is growing in the US, Mr. Herbst argues that a carefully built argu­ment of geno­cide could result in the decis­ion to enforce huma­ni­ta­rian cor­ri­dors with an air force. If the reports of the use of che­mi­cal warfare by Russia in Mariu­pol prove to be true, the US Admi­nis­tra­tion will be under great pres­sure to enforce huma­ni­ta­rian air cor­ri­dors. 

Wayne Jordash, Mana­ging Partner of Global Rights Com­pli­ance LLP, draws atten­tion to the very early stage of gathe­ring evi­dence, which dis­plays only frac­tions of what has really hap­pened. The pat­terns point out at escala­tion: at the begin­ning, war crimes were com­mit­ted, trying to cohere the Ukrai­nian popu­la­tion to accept the Russian occu­pa­tion. Then it increased to include the sys­te­ma­tic attacks against the popu­la­tion, which are con­side­red crimes against huma­nity. Now the escala­tion is incre­asing even more so that even if the initial inten­tion of the Russian mili­tary was not that of anni­hi­la­tion, the evo­lu­tion in this direc­tion has hap­pened, as the local popu­la­tion showed resis­tance. This kind of vio­lence is desi­gned to destroy parts of the Ukrai­nian people. However, the prac­tice in inter­na­tio­nal trials seems to focus on phy­si­cal des­truc­tion or the intent of phy­si­cal des­truc­tion. Attempts to liqui­date the state or to attack the iden­tity might be con­side­red steps leading to geno­cide, but are not con­side­red geno­cide by itself. Mr. Jordash also belie­ves that some of the most important actions, that can be con­side­red geno­ci­dal are those of deport­ing child­ren from Ukraine, sexual vio­lence against women, and mass kil­lings or other forms of harm. Also, local per­se­cu­ti­ons of crimes are important because they take broader his­to­ri­cal and cul­tu­ral context into account. From this per­spec­tive, the long history of oppres­sion of Ukrai­ni­ans by Russia and Russian atro­ci­ties since 2014 are important for any tri­bu­nal to under­stand how we arrived at the current situa­tion.  

Marie­luise Beck, Direc­tor for East-Central and Eastern Europe at LibMod and mode­ra­tor of the dis­cus­sion, refer­red to the prin­ci­ple of “never again” in German post-WWII poli­tics. This prin­ci­ple should mean that the unlawfully atta­cked country must be streng­the­ned, and the victims must be pro­tec­ted. During the war in the former Yugo­sla­via, the West waited too long until a geno­cide of eight thousand Bosnian men hap­pened. Ms. Beck appeals to Germany and the West to support Ukraine more decisi­vely.  


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