Will russian atrocities in Ukraine be recognized as genocide? Here is what the researchers say about this

Will russian atrocities in Ukraine be recognized as genocide? Here is what the researchers say about this

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / palinchak
8 April 2022

President Volodymyr Zelensky said the mass killings of civilians in Bucha will be recognized as genocide. However, it is not that simple.

Recognizing something as an act of genocide is a very complicated procedure. War crimes and crimes against humanity fundamentally differ from genocide, implying a clear intent to completely destroy a particular ethnic, racial, national, or religious group. And it is very difficult to prove this intent.

Besides, the crimes need to be investigated. An International Criminal Court investigation is already underway. At the request of 39 countries, in early March, the ICC announced the launch of an investigation into war crimes after russia invaded Ukraine. The ICC Office of the Prosecutor exercised its jurisdiction to investigate three international crimes, including genocide.

There also needs to be an investigation at the national level. And it is not just Ukraine that can do it. Six countries (Estonia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden) are already investigating russia’s crimes.

Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are also collecting evidence.

But is the world community talking about genocide?

Some European countries are already beginning to recognize russia’s crimes as genocide. According to the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, the crimes committed by russia in Bucha and other cities should be called acts of genocide and considered as such. He proposed the establishment of an international commission to investigate the crime of genocide in Ukraine.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also called the crimes of the Russians genocide. A joint statement by the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic also mentioned genocide.

However, not all are unanimous. The EU has been talking only about “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” US President Biden refused to recognize what the russian army did as genocide. He also called them a “war crime.” The Israeli prime minister condemned the Bucha killings but did not accuse russia of war crimes.

What are the chances that the atrocities committed by the russian army in Ukraine will be recognized as genocide? Below is what international researchers of genocide say about it.

Eugene Finkel: “This is pure genocide” 

Political scientist and historian at Johns Hopkins University; holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; holocaust researcher and author of books on genocide.

According to Finkel, there are considerable gaps in defining genocide. “The official legal definition of genocide is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It does not give us clear thresholds (what does “in part” even mean?), and it is almost impossible to prove intent.” 

“People who carry out genocide are usually not idiots; if there are orders at all, they would be given orally,” Finkel said. 

However, even this problematic definition fits well with what happened in Ukraine.

In the researcher’s view, the Russian invasion did not start with clear genocidal intent but evolved into one. Regime change and colonial subjugation are by themselves not enough to constitute genocide but can escalate when conditions change.

There also is growing evidence that Bucha is not an isolated case. Yet the most important thing is an article about Ukraine published by the russian state outlet RIA Novosti. 

“This piece is one of the most explicit statements of intent to destroy a national group as such that I’ve ever seen,” Finkel wrote.

Genocide Watch, a leading NGO, reprinted Finkel’s article entitled “Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine.” “President Zelensky of Ukraine correctly called Russia’s crimes Genocide, as well as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression. When will State Department legal advisor genocide deniers ever use the G-word while genocide is underway?” Genocide Watch wrote on Twitter.

Jonathan Leader Maynard: “There are not enough grounds to declare that genocide has taken place, but things can change”

Doctor of philosophy in genocide research, mass killing, and atrocity crimes; lecturer at King’s College London.

According to Jonathan Maynard, we must be careful with the term “genocide,” which has a very specific legal meaning. However, we must also show the clearest evidence of atrocities committed against civilians.

“The Genocide Convention states that genocide does not require an effort to wipe out an entire group. But it involves more than the killing of civilians or the perpetration of atrocities like rape, torture, mutilation, etc. These could be genocidal acts but often aren’t,” Maynard wrote.

Whether they are genocidal depends on their strategic intent: was this an effort to eliminate groups based on their ethnicity, nationality, etc.? It is extremely hard to get good data on the shape of – let alone the intent behind – such campaigns during an ongoing conflict.

Maynard called the piece by RIA Novosti an alarming signal, which some researchers see as an announcement of intent. But it is not enough to declare that genocide has taken place. 

There is growing evidence of the russian military’s mass attack on civilians. The UN has confirmed russian forces have killed over 1,500 civilians, but this number will rise with better data.

Maynard believes there is still no clear evidence of outright genocide at this stage – but he cannot disconfirm the possibility of genocide either.

However, Maynard emphasizes that the common assertion that abuses against civilians are ‘inevitable’ in war is totally false. “States have been found to directly target civilians in roughly 1/5 to 1/3 of all wars. Atrocities are appalling but not inevitable.”

Alexander Hinton: “It is possible that a genocide has already begun”

Director at the Center for the Study of Genocide & Human Rights, UNESCO chair on genocide, distinguished professor of anthropology.

On April 1, The Conversation published Hinton’s article “Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine?” The field of genocide studies has developed frameworks for assessing the threat of genocide in volatile situations. Hinton assesses how Ukraine’s situation corresponds to the frameworks. 

First, there is a historical precedent. Russia has a long history of mass violence against Ukrainians and other groups: the Holodomor, forced deportation and massive political purges, and bombarding civilians in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. Second, the crimes of genocide are also strongly correlated with political upheaval, especially war. Third is ideology and demonization: russia depicts its violence as necessary to “denazify” Ukraine, denying Ukrainian identity.

“These tools, including one used by the UN, indicate Ukraine is indeed at considerable risk for genocide,” Hinton wrote, adding: “It is possible that a genocide has already begun.” 

According to Alexander Hinton, the information about atrocities committed by russia in Bucha only heighten concerns. With Russia’s military shift to the east, Donbas is also now at particular risk.

“Ironically, Putin tried to legitimate his invasion with the baseless claim that genocide is taking place in Donbas. He may be right in the end – except Russia will have been the one to commit genocide,” the researcher tweeted on April 4.

In addition, Hinton emphasizes that the most serious crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, forcible transfer of civilians) can often occur in parallel. The international community has recognized that each state has a “responsibility to protect” its populations from these crimes. If a country is unable to do so, UN member states must act.

Francine Hirsch: “The word genocide was indeed created to describe what is now transpiring in Ukraine”

Professor of history UW-Madison; specializes in russia and the Soviet Unio; the author of “Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal after World War II.” 

“Yes, the word genocide was indeed created to describe what is now transpiring in Ukraine. And the term totalitarianism was invented to describe the kind of regime that is now in place in Russia,Hirsch wrote. 

She also believes the RIA Novosti article calls for genocide and should be taken seriously as a signal of Russia’s plans and policies. 

Timothy Snyder: “Vladimir Putin has been making a case for genocide against Ukrainians for years. Have we been listening?”

Professor of history at Yale University; specializes in Eastern European history and, in particular, the history of Ukraine, Poland, and russia; researcher of totalitarianism and the Holocaust.

On March 23, before the world learned about the atrocities committed by russians in Kyiv, Timothy Snyder wrote a piece for the Washington Post about Ukraine. It begins with the quote above. 

Snyder argues that the russians carried out a genocide in Ukraine. “Putin’s words are clearly reflected by his country’s actions in Ukraine. Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide specifies five acts that fulfill its definition of “genocide;” all five have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. As for evidence of intention: Putin has been confessing it all along.”

According to Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide means any of the following acts with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such:

  • killing members of this group;
  • causing 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.

According to Snyder, the article in RIA Novosti advocates the elimination of the Ukrainian people as such.

Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention: “Russia’s behavior is indicative of genocidal intent”

Lemkin Institute released a statement about russia’s genocidal intent toward Ukraine before the de-occupation of the cities in the Kyiv region, urging the international community to realize the seriousness of the atrocities being carried out by russia. 

The statement mentions bombardments of Mariupol’s civilian areas: russian forces have shelled buildings in which civilians have taken refuge, such as the Donetsk Regional Theater of Drama in Mariupol, as well as buildings that are legally off-limits in times of war, including hospitals and schools.  

In addition, Russia uses the “language of genocide.” Even before the full-scale invasion on February 24, Putin repeatedly denied the existence of the Ukrainian nation and its sovereignty. According to the Lemkin Institute, this could imply an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, the national Ukrainian group. 

Even though not all researchers are currently ready to state that russia’s crimes against civilians in Ukraine are genocide, they agree that the international community must be aware of the seriousness of the atrocities committed by russia to provide a decisive answer that will stop them. 

The West must choose: Either arm Ukraine or enable Putin’s genocide.

We would like to thank the Regional Center for Human Rights and in particular Iryna Usmanova for providing materials and consultations in the process of preparing this piece.



The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations