In what should be more than a war of words, the term “genocide” is being tossed around in the wake of the fighting during Putin’s War. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the term prior to his invasion of Ukraine, claiming that the Ukrainians were committing genocide against the Russian speaking population of Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine. Indeed, it is part of his disinformation campaign to justify his invasion and he connects it to his declaration that the Ukrainian government is run by “Nazis.” There is a long history of this sort of talk from Mr. Putin. In short, the Soviet Union’s war against Nazi Germany in World War II is glorified in Russian history beyond any level that we in the United States may understand. He is trying to build support for his war by tying it to the success of the Soviet army against the Nazis. Forgotten in that telling, of course, is that in 1939 the Soviet Union was allied with Germany via a non-aggression pact and they divided Poland between them. Also conveniently forgotten is that in April and May of 1940 the Soviets executed about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in the Katyn forest.
In 2022 we face a difficult situation. President Joe Biden called Mr. Putin a “war criminal” for the atrocities taking place in Ukrainian areas occupied or under siege by Russian troops. At last count, Ukrainian government prosecutors were investigating about 5,800 cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with more uncovered everyday. These are facts which, unfortunately, many of us can see for ourselves each night on the national news. Last week Mr. Biden took it a step further during an event in Iowa by saying that Mr. Putin is “a dictator that commits genocide.” Later, he doubled down on his statement saying, “Yes. I called it genocide. It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian.” Which has a basis in fact, as Mr. Putin repeatedly claims that Ukraine should cease to exist as a sovereign nation. He believes it should be Russian with only Russian speakers living there.
War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are all legal terms under international law. Each is the result of ever more horrifying actions of one people against others. Genocide, however, has usually been reserved for the most heinous of crimes and gives another level of importance to the events in Ukraine. As if they were not already of utmost importance. The moral stakes are as high as they can be.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (often called the Genocide Convention) codified the United Nations resolution of 1946 that made genocide a crime under international law. In Article II, the Convention document defines genocide as meaning “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
I will leave it to the international law experts to define what “in whole or in part” means, but it would seem that actions by one nation attempting to eliminate another does not have to succeed in entirely wiping them out. Merely trying to do so is a crime. In fact, the Convention states that conspiracy or incitement to commit genocide is itself a crime. Certainly it is easy from what we know in open source reporting that the Russians have violated at least four of the five genocidal actions under the Convention.
Sadly, whether brought up on war crime charges or for genocide, it is unlikely that Mr. Putin or any of those in his inner circle or those carrying out his orders will be brought to trial. Under the Convention the investigation and trial of such crimes are to be undertaken by the nation in which they occurred or in international court.
The real issue here is a moral one. It raises new questions about how NATO should support Ukraine and how this conflict will end. If we in the West truly believe in the slogan “Never Again!” — meaning we will never again sit by and watch the slaughter of thousands or millions of our fellow human beings as occurred in the Nazi death camps — then now is the time to step up. This is a major test of the world order and a test that will have consequences for decades to come. Russians are deliberately torturing, killing, beheading, raping, and desecrating civilians in Ukraine. I’ll repeat that. Deliberately. Even though I cannot understand how human beings can be so cruel to others — and yes, I know my history from around the world including here in the U.S. — it is none-the-less happening. It is an instrument of planned terror. It also provides a look into the psyche of the average Russian. Only by dehumanizing an opponent — thinking of them as “scum” (Putin’s word) and other than human — can people be so cruel.
These actions also impact how the war will end. How can Ukraine reach a negotiated settlement with Russia if the Russians are attempting to wipe out the very meaning of what it means to be Ukrainian? How can the West broker a settlement with a country accused of genocide? Is anything short of a complete defeat of Russia rewarding their genocidal policy? Does giving up Ukrainian territory — rewarding Russia for committing genocide — even make sense? Such questions have a significant impact on the course of the war, who gets involved, and its outcome.
My thoughts on NATO and with that, U.S. support to Ukraine have evolved over the course of the last few weeks. I think we need to go all in. Not with troops in Ukraine — at least not yet — but with every offensive and defensive weapon we can reasonably give to Ukraine. I am sure that we are providing valuable intelligence data to the Ukrainians (surprise Russian flagship Moskva!) to help them with their targeting but we should take that a step further to allow them to attack into Russian territory to hit supply, fuel and military targets. Continue to put our best military minds to work with imaginative, but deniable, actions that hinder the Russian military. Sanctions are the public face of such efforts — and they are beginning to work — but there is much more to do. Our covert capabilities are excellent. There is more to do without directly fighting the Russians.
The moral imperative is there now. I have come to understand what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is saying about how this is a fight for the future of western democracies. It may sound like hyperbole, or over-dramatization on their part, but as we see the ruthless brutality of the Russians such statements take on more meaning. Importantly, remember why Mr. Putin started this war. Once the propaganda is removed it is for one major reason. He saw a direct challenge to his totalitarian regime. If Ukraine — where many Russians have family members as do Ukrainians in Russia — becomes a full fledged western democracy sitting fully on his border, he will soon have internal domestic problems as more and more Russians clamor for a similar assimilation into Europe. As it is, many of his troops are seeing a way of life that they could not imagine. In addition to the subjugation of a nation, there is a reason Russian troops are carrying away washing machines, laptops, televisions and other consumer goods. They cannot get them in many parts of Russia and certainly, many average Russians cannot afford them.
Mr. Putin is desperate to maintain his way of life and to rule Russia with an iron fist. That is why Ukraine is such a threat. He must destroy it in order to show that the western democracies of NATO cannot succeed in protecting it, therefore no nation should think that democracy is a way of governing that succeeds. How far he is willing to go in this scorched earth policy we can only guess. This is the first time in my experience that sober, knowledgeable people are talking about the use of nuclear weapons. Many surmise that Mr. Putin thinks such weapons are a viable option if needed to succeed in Ukraine. That should give all of us pause and emphasize once again how serious this war is and how much more serious it can become.
We get easily distracted by such things as “The Slap” at the Academy Awards show, or whether we now have to wear masks on airplanes. Life goes on, yes, but the stakes are higher in Ukraine than many believe. Five million people to date have left Ukraine for other countries. This in its self is a humanitarian crisis. It is also part of the Russian plan to destabilize western Europe by disrupting the ability of democratic governments to care for their own people and the refugees.
Genocide is underway. There is a massive humanitarian crisis underway. Terror is raining down on the civilians in many Ukrainian cities, killing tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Russia is reportedly deporting women and children from occupied areas to camps in Russia. More atrocities will be uncovered. Mr. Putin is trying to destroy the ideals of western democracy. The list will grow longer.
If we mean “Never Again!” we need to act on it.
“Russia is worse than ISIS. Full stop.”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister
This past weekend we witnessed two significant events surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Russians withdrew from the towns and suburbs around the capital Kyiv, and the resulting discoveries were horrendous. Besides the utter destruction of homes and buildings, it was clear to the most impartial observers that the Russians had conducted untold atrocities on the civilian population including murder, rape and looting. To date, over four hundred civilian Ukrainians are known to have been murdered in one town alone. Some were buried in mass graves, some were left where they were shot in the street. Dozens were shot execution style with their hands tied behind their backs. The pictures are horrifying. The stories from the survivors are worse. The town of Bucha was the first to uncover the breadth of the atrocities but it will not be the last. Many observers believe that similar war crimes are being committed in other occupied cities and towns. The only difference so far is that those areas have yet to be freed of Russian forces, their accomplices from Chechnya and the mercenaries sent to bail out the Russian military.
These two developments together may mark a turning point in Putin’s War. Analysts believe that the Russians are in the process of concentrating their remaining forces in eastern Ukraine to dominate the separatist areas of Luhansk and Donetsk. This is why the battle for Kharkiv is so essential. Additionally, they will concentrate on completing a Russian land bridge from Crimea to Russia along the coast of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. This is the importance of the battle for Mariupol and efforts by the Russians to capture Odessa. So far, the Russians have failed to achieve all of their strategic and operational goals. The Ukrainian resistance is unbelievable and is to be commended. Unfortunately, the war is not over and time is on the Russian’s side. At the current rate, the Ukrainians cannot hold out for ever, perhaps only a few more months. Meantime, the loss of Ukrainian lives, military and civilian, continues during heavy fighting and deliberate and random Russian attacks on cities and civilians. Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking the approach that if he cannot have Ukraine, then he will make sure that there is nothing left for the Ukrainians that survive his brutal attacks.
This should come as no surprise to anyone that studies eastern European history. It is certainly no surprise to the Ukrainians. For a hundred years or more, the Russian way of fighting includes destroying civilian infrastructure and killing as many civilians as possible. While leading the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and others in war and in peace. Mr. Putin has used scorched earth tactics in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere. It is what they do. It is what they are doing now. Make no mistake, the war crimes ongoing in Ukraine are not the result of poorly trained, undisciplined individual units going berserk. This is a strategy. It is meant to terrorize the civilian population into giving up. Even as the Russians deny their atrocities and call it “fake news” they are glad it is publicized. It gets the message out to those watching that the terror is real and it is personal. It is an integral element of their conduct of war and crucial to the PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) they are conducting to demoralize the Ukrainian population.
Now is the time for NATO to act with ever greater urgency. The Russians are temporarily disorganized, demoralized and lacking in unit cohesion, supplies and the essentials of war. That will not last forever. While they are regrouping in Russia and Belarus, the NATO allies and other supporters should be pouring weapons and materiel into Ukraine to give them the chance to go on the offensive and push the Russians back. Apparently, there is a debate among the allies as to supplying “defensive” arms to Ukraine as opposed to “offensive” arms. It is past time to forget about such niceties. For the Ukrainians, this is a fight to the finish. For the rest of the world, this is a fight for freedom and democracy. Ukraine is on the front lines. What happens there will have great geo-political consequences for the West and much of the rest of the world. Give them what they need. They are doing an incredible job defending themselves. They are not asking for NATO troops or forces from anywhere else — only the weapons they need to fight the Russian war machine. As important in warfare as weapons is the will to fight. The Ukrainians have proved their determination to fight for every inch of their nation. But they don’t have the weapons. Most military men and women will tell you that when the shooting starts, they don’t know or care whether the bullets and shells coming at them are from “defensive” or “offensive” weapons. They just know that they are getting shot at. Of course, let’s not forget that the Russians went on the offensive to start the war and continue to be offensive in their operations and actions in every sense of the word.
Primarily, the U.S. is under pressure to supply more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine. Without going into a litany of particular weapon systems, U.S. sophisticated weapons are not of much use at this point because the Ukrainian Armed Forces do not have the training to use them. The U.S. should continue to supply massive amounts of effective, but less sophisticated weapons such as MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems such as Stinger missiles) and NLAWS (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon Systems such as British and Swedish shoulder fired systems or the larger U.S. Javelin). Such weapons are easy to learn to use in a short period of time and are quite effective in the right circumstances. Just ask the Russian armored columns.
More sophisticated weapons such as mid or high-altitude air defense systems, or coastal missile systems, or tanks or airplanes should come from our NATO allies that were formerly part of the USSR or Warsaw Pact. These Soviet era weapons are of the same types that Ukraine primarily has in their military so there is no ramp up in training. They can be used immediately. Poland in particular could be quite effective in this way.
As much as can be provided now, not a month from now or later, would be most effective in saving Ukrainian lives and in giving the Ukrainian military the opportunity to take advantage of the Russian disarray. Let’s face it. The Ukrainians are not going to march to Moscow. They will not retake Crimea through force. Whether “offensive” or “defensive” they need the equipment now to save lives and to push Russia to meaningful negotiations.
At the same time NATO needs to decide which “red lines” must be drawn. War crimes are taking place daily. Russia must be held responsible. It is too far-fetched to believe that Mr. Putin will ever stand trial in person for his war crimes. However, significant destruction of his conventional military power is not beyond the realm of possibility if he continues to pursue the war in Ukraine. They have been proved to be ill-equipped, poorly trained, lacking in leadership and short on logistic support. But there is still the preponderance of force on their side both in manpower and in numbers of weapons. They can still over-run Ukraine if they go all in, which it seems Mr. Putin is willing to do. He is not personally suffering from sanctions or the war. As I mentioned above, the Russian mentality is to crush everything in their path. If that means losing thousands (or in World War II, millions) of their own troops, so be it. They are ruthless in every way, including the treatment of their own fighting forces. To date, no number of casualties is too high.
The Butcher of Bucha will not stop the atrocities. We need to make them pay the highest price we can.