(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

In the month since the International Criminal Court formally opened an investigation into possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine, evidence of severe abuses against civilians by the Russian military has continued to accumulate. This week, shocking images emerged from Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, with civilian corpses strewn openly across streets, and the discovery of at least one mass grave containing dozens, and potentially hundreds, of bodies. On Sunday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly accused the Russian government of committing genocide in Ukraine, a view endorsed by leading Holocaust scholar Eugene Finkel, himself born in Ukraine.

What exactly do we know, at this stage, about the nature of the violence committed by Russian forces against Ukrainian civilians? As a scholar of genocide and armed conflict, I am wary of expressing absolute confidence in any claim about violence while it is still ongoing. When we are inside the “fog of war” it is extremely difficult to piece together a reliable picture of events occurring along combat fronts or in occupied territories. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that the Russian military has committed serious atrocity crimes in Ukraine involving both a) the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, including via cluster munitions; and b) targeted killings and rapes of civilians by Russian forces. On the Ukrainian side, there is some evidence of much more limited law-of-war violations by Ukrainian troops such as the mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war, but Ukrainian authorities have denounced such violations, said any such actions must cease, and are currently investigating the allegations.

Contrary to the apologists for such abuses, these sorts of atrocities are not simply an inevitable part of war. Studies have shown that states directly target civilians in roughly 1/5 to 1/3 of all armed conflicts – an unacceptably high figure, but one which highlights how most states, most of the time, make serious attempts to respect the legal principles of distinction and non-combatant immunity.

The fact that Russian forces have committed such atrocities in Ukraine is nevertheless unsurprising, for three key reasons. First, the Russian military has a nasty record of either directly targeting or indiscriminately victimizing civilians in both Chechnya and Syria. Second, the Kremlin has wrapped itself in a hardline ultranationalist ideology that sees a West-leaning Ukrainian state as illegitimate and a significant political and cultural threat to Russia – shattering the longstanding myth that President Putin is pragmatic and not ideological. This is precisely the kind of worldview commonly associated with atrocity perpetrators, and, as pointed out by leading historian Timothy Snyder, involves the effective erasure of any sense of Ukraine’s independent national identity, which Putin presents as an artificial deviation from a mythically unified Russian nation. Third, Russia’s war-effort has degenerated into a stagnant campaign in which conventional tactics have failed to achieve Putin’s aims. This represents a classic scenario – one similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 – in which sufficiently brutal governments will often resort to atrocities as a way to terrorise their opponents to surrender.

The atrocities that Russian forces have committed against civilians already constitute war crimes and probably also crimes against humanity (for the latter they need to be part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack,” as specified in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court). This does not automatically equate to “genocide,” however, which has a distinct set of legal conditions laid down in the 1948 Genocide Convention, namely:

“[A]ny of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

These are complex criteria: in particular, the notion of “intent to destroy [a] group, as such” is fairly demanding, and has generated substantial legal and scholarly debate as to its correct interpretation.

In many ways, of course, the specific label we apply to atrocities in Ukraine really shouldn’t matter that much. While genocide is commonly referred to as “the crime of crimes,” atrocities against civilians are atrocities whether they are genocidal or not. The international community has acknowledged, at least since the 2005 World Summit, a responsibility to protect civilians from atrocities irrespective of whether those atrocities take a genocidal form. It is hardly surprising, moreover, that Zelenskyy would employ the language of “genocide” as part of his efforts to highlight these atrocities to the international community.

Nevertheless, “genocide” is a concept with legal particularities and implications, and one that is frequently misused by politicians – most obviously by Putin himself as a false pretext for his invasion of Ukraine. The term may also distort our understanding of ongoing atrocities, potentially in ways that impede effective efforts to halt or respond to them. It is therefore important to be clear on when we are talking about genocide, when we are talking about other kinds of atrocities, and when we are just not sure.

To firmly conclude that a given episode of violence is genocide, we need to piece together a complex mix of evidence on both the specific attitudes of the perpetrators, the pattern of violence they perpetrate, and the links between the two. Concerning specific attitudes, we do have mounting evidence of support for genocidal ideology amongst the Russian political elite. Most obviously, the rambling and historically inaccurate speech with which Putin launched his invasion effectively denied Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation, an idea he and other senior Russian officials have propagated for years. Importantly, on April 3, 2022, the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an editorial that called for the Ukrainian people to be killed in large numbers on the ground that they were all essentially Nazis. “Denazification,” the author wrote, “is inevitably also De-Ukrainianization.” This is classic genocidal ideology: matching the kinds of justifications found in the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Armenian Genocide, and all other major cases.

The growth of such genocidal rhetoric is alarming in the extreme, especially given broader historical legacies of Russian and Soviet violence in Ukraine. But it does not itself provide direct evidence of policymaking or military planning. We cannot just point to military forces committing atrocities, then point to extremist government rhetoric, and straightforwardly conclude that these are two sides of a unified operation. Government rhetoric might be largely a means for mobilising public support, for trying to pressure the opposing side to capitulate, or for some other purpose and audience, with quite different motives or intentions actually guiding violence “on the ground.” Fifty years of research on genocide and atrocity crimes consistently highlights how a wide range of motives can underpin such violence, in ways often disconnected from official proclamations.

Data on the exact pattern of violence perpetrated by Russian forces in Ukraine, meanwhile, remains extremely messy. Even years after a war ends, it is often difficult to conclusively pin down the exact character of the violence: scholars still debate, for example, how far the killing of around 200,000 civilians, primarily indigenous Maya, in Guatemala’s 1966-1996 Civil War was driven by genocidal ambitions. It is even harder when atrocities and war crimes are ongoing. We know that Russian forces have committed atrocities, but we cannot reliably estimate their exact scale. We have alarming signs of possible planning for civilian massacres, including initial reports of the Russian army moving mobile crematoria into Ukraine, but many details remain unconfirmed. We know practically nothing about the actual orders behind specific killings of civilians and are only starting to get a sense of how organized and systematic the violence has been. It is no coincidence that leading NGOs responsible for monitoring genocide occurrence and risks – such as GenocideWatch or the Early Warning Project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – have not issued a genocide risk warning alert for the Ukraine, yet. (It’s worth noting that they do have such alerts active for other states receiving little attention in the world’s media: including in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India).

Consequently, on the basis of available evidence, we are not currently at the stage where we can confidently confirm (or disconfirm) that the Russian government is committing genocide in Ukraine. But – and this is crucial – we can reach two equally critical conclusions. First, Russian forces are committing atrocity crimes in Ukraine and the international community has a responsibility to respond to such crimes. Moreover, these crimes are highly likely to constitute mass atrocities: typically used to refer to cases with 1,000 or more direct civilian victims of atrocity crimes (note that this excludes the larger number of civilians killed or injured in the conflict by other means). Any large-scale atrocity crimes of this kind should be of massive moral and political concern to the world and generate urgent condemnation and responsive action.

Second, the risk of more expansive atrocities in Ukraine, including outright genocide, is escalating. There has been a visible increase of genocidal rhetoric in government-approved outlets, coupled with the ongoing failure of major Russian advances. Putin’s regime is deeply entrenched yet desperately fearful. This combination of factors is exceptionally dangerous. We should expect to see substantially more evidence of Russian forces’ violence against civilians emerge over the coming days and weeks, as the Ukrainians retake control of areas previously occupied or under assault. It is possible that this evidence may either show that genocide has already been committed, or that previous violence is now escalating toward the point of genocide.

There is consequently an urgent need for both greater preventive action and greater data gathering by the international community in tandem with Ukraine. The shift of frustrated Russian forces into a more consolidated occupation zone in east and southeast Ukraine is engendering a potentially catastrophic situation for the remaining civilian population. Readily releasing satellite and intelligence data in the buildup to the invasion was a wise move by Ukraine’s supporters, weakening Putin’s ability to legitimate his invasion internationally. This strategy should be continued to keep a constant spotlight on the Russian military activities in occupied Ukraine.

More robust action against the Russian military by Ukraine’s supporters is difficult, given fear of nuclear escalation. But the severe risk of worse atrocity crimes should intensify material support for Ukraine. In almost all cases of mass atrocities, the only truly effective tool to prevent or halt the violence is to defeat the perpetrators and/or push them out of their victims’ territory. These remain urgent and crucial tasks for addressing the situation in Ukraine.

Image: A man gestures at a mass grave in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 3, 2022. Ukraine and Western nations accused Russian troops of war crimes after the discovery of mass graves and “executed” civilians near Kyiv, prompting vows of action at the International Criminal Court (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images).