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Is Russia Committing Genocide In Ukraine?  

Serhiy Lahovskiy mourns over the body of his friend, Ihor Lytvynenko, who local residents say was killed by Russian soldiers, in Bucha on April 5.

Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine? David Simon, a professor of political science and director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, spoke to RFE/RL's Todd Prince about this question, why it matters, and why Russia’s power on the UN Security Council is a problem.

RFE/RL: There's been debate as to whether what is going on in Bucha and other towns in Ukraine is genocide. What are your views on that?

David Simon
David Simon

David Simon: You know, I think there's a lot of interest in this question, not least because President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy raised the specter of genocide in his own comments earlier this week. And the images that came out of Bucha are appalling. They "shock the conscience," to use a phrase that dates back to the Nuremberg [trials] era.

The question of whether or not there's a genocide under way in Ukraine -- perhaps at the behest of Russian troops, or the Russian operation as a whole -- is actually more complicated than just a matter of atrocities in any one given spot. The determination of genocide depends upon the ability to detect or infer intent. The phrase within the Genocide Convention that defines what genocide is under international law says that genocide is any certain number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial, ethnic, religious or national group as such.

That's the key -- the key part of what makes genocide genocide. It's trying to destroy a group because they are a group, killing people because they are members of that group, and because the perpetrator is seeking the destruction or at least partial elimination of that group.

RFE/RL: So, would that mean that so far, at least at the moment, you can't say what has gone on is genocide because there's no indication yet that it's targeting a group and we don't have the confirmation of intent?

Simon: It's tricky. I'm not sure that we don't have the information...but the case is more complicated than sort of pointing at atrocities and saying, "Oh, it must be genocide." It's really a matter of connecting what has happened in terms of acts of violence and murder of civilians, massacres of civilians in the streets…to the stated war aims of Russia, of the Kremlin, of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, or even of local military commanders.

In Yugoslavia and Rwanda -- where there have been international trials, international courts that considered the charge of genocide -- the initial convictions for genocide -- the very first convictions for genocide in an international court ever, in the late 1990s -- were of sort of small-town mayors who ordered soldiers that were locally under [their] control to commit acts that fell within the definition of genocide. So, we don't need to have a Putin statement per se. But ultimately, I think, in this case we might end up finding something like that. It's in the declarations regarding the Ukrainians' right to exist.

WATCH: A children's summer camp in Ukraine is the site of another grisly atrocity. In a basement, there were bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads. The Ukrainian authorities said it was a war crime committed by Russian forces.

Inside An 'Execution Cellar' In Ukraine
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And it's tricky here, what Putin says -- and I'm paraphrasing, and I must…qualify that I'm not pointing to any specific speech -- but the general sentiment that he's been saying is that Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist. That Ukraine is a sort of international accident…. And therefore, he says, Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist. At some level, that's different from saying Ukrainians don't have a right to exist. And Putin, I think, would be the first to say, "Yes, those people have a right to exist. They just have to call themselves Russians." Which really does raise some very interesting questions, I think, without really having a precedent in international law as to whether or not that constitutes genocide.

Now, there's two further branches I'd like to go out from there. One is to say that there's a realm that's not in the Genocide Convention that was considered back in the 1940s at the UN, when they were discussing the composition of the Genocide Convention -- a realm of cultural genocide, which is essentially the denial of a culture and the denial of a people's right to claim a culture or national identity of some sort. That could be argued, but it has no basis in international law, for better or for worse.

But the other direction where this might go is that at least some people affiliated with the Kremlin have written in [Russian] state media outlets things along the lines that the Ukrainian leadership must be liquidated…. And, of course, they refer to the leadership as neo-Nazis in some form or another. However, they also don't distinguish between actual neo-Nazis [or] membership in a neo-Nazi organization and Ukrainians as a whole.

So, if you're conflating that political membership with a national identity, and then you're saying that the leadership of that identity group needs to be liquidated or exterminated, you are calling for -- quite arguably, anyway -- the elimination of part of a group as such, and thus it might fall under the Genocide Convention as genocide.

If some prosecutor and ultimately some judge bought the theory that calling all Ukrainians "neo-Nazis" is effectively making the dodge of calling a national group a political group...the reason that would matter is that political groups are not "protected" under the Genocide Convention the way that national groups are. They're not a protected class, to use this American constitutional term. That's from a legal standpoint.

WATCH: Images of dozens of bodies lying in the streets of the village of Bucha, near Kyiv, have been seen around the world, prompting accusations of war crimes against Russian forces. RFE/RL correspondent Levko Stek traveled there on April 3 shortly after its liberation by Ukrainian forces, witnessed the carnage in the streets, and spoke to residents about what happened there.

'They Killed People Systematically': Bucha Residents Allege War Crimes By Expelled Russian Forces
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From an empirical standpoint -- and informed by work that folks have done in the field of genocide studies -- we find that very often the first move of an architect of genocide is to delegitimize the political standing of the targeted group. For example, calling Tutsis in Rwanda "cockroaches" but also "accomplices" -- all Tutsis were seen as accomplices to a rebel army. That disqualified them from…a political standing within Rwandan society, according to the people who are making those claims. Similarly, calling Ukrainians "neo-Nazis" is a way of trying to remove their political standing as rightful participants in the norms of a political sphere….

If you use [neo-Nazi] indiscriminately -- essentially as a slur, rather than as a specific designation -- then I would argue it's not a designation of a political group. That it is a way to target a national group as a whole.

RFE/RL: What are the consequences if you label an atrocity as genocide as opposed to a war crime?

Simon: It's really more in the popular imagination, the global imagination, that genocide sits atop some sort of hierarchy of crimes. In fact, it does not. There's no established hierarchy written in law anywhere. As a matter of prosecutions, someone could be prosecuted for war crimes and someone could be prosecuted for genocide.

But beyond accountability, there's this question of intervention or suppression of these acts, preventing further acts of genocide or of war crimes. Now, the Genocide Convention features language that says [that] if anyone thinks genocide is going on, they should take it to the UN, and the UN will figure out how to deal with it, to paraphrase it. With Russia holding a veto on the Security Council, that's going to be slow going. There is a workaround going through the General Assembly, but it can't very easily do things like create peacekeeping forces or peacekeeping missions or authorize some sort of international coalition of military intervention. And that only applies for genocide.

The bodies of five men found in the basement of a children's camp in Bucha after the Russian military left the city on March 31.
The bodies of five men found in the basement of a children's camp in Bucha after the Russian military left the city on March 31.

Now, there's a doctrine out there -- that at least theoretically all members of the United Nations have signed off on -- called "the responsibility to protect." The doctrine says that when certain crimes are recognized as taking place, and the government [that] has authority over where those crimes are happening is unable to protect the targets of those crimes, then the international community also has a responsibility to protect those individuals.

Now, typically, that's been invoked in, say, Libya, where in 2011 [Muammar] Qaddafi was targeting opponents in Benghazi and elsewhere and the UN Security Council met and said Qaddafi is not interested in protecting his own civilians. In fact, he's targeting [them]. So, we'll pass a resolution that says, controversially, we via NATO can take any means necessary to protect that civilian population. But it is a dictator against his own population in that instance.

Here, we're looking at a neighbor [Russia] targeting a population in a neighboring country, and the government of that neighboring country -- the targeted country [Ukraine] -- needing assistance to protect its own citizens from the predations of its neighbor. So that's something that doesn't really have precedent in the short history of "responsibility to protect" -- or at least no precedent that's been invoked. I think there have been some similar situations. But that is a realm in which the situations that require protection are not just situations of confirmed or even alleged genocide, but crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.

The body of a Ukrainian man -- one of many -- who was found shot dead in Bucha with his hands tied behind his back.
The body of a Ukrainian man -- one of many -- who was found shot dead in Bucha with his hands tied behind his back.

Those other three categories of gross human rights violations are much easier to point at and say, "Yeah, that's a war crime. That's a crime against humanity," because you don't need to infer intent. You don't need to find evidence of the mindset of the perpetrator. You just need to show, essentially, that -- in the case of crimes against humanity -- there's a widespread and systematic attack against civilians. Or in the case of war crimes, that there are violations of a fairly well-codified set of regulations regarding the conduct of armed groups during wartime.

RFE/RL: If it is classified as genocide, would states be obligated to take some sort of action against, in this case, Russia?

Simon: The only obligation in the convention itself is to go to the UN. That then becomes an uncertain process. There's nothing compelling, there's no institutional penalty, for not doing anything. Perhaps there should be. But in this realm of international law and international politics, we lack that mechanism to compel actual action. So the United States, for example, has made a determination that genocide is occurring -- or was occurring or has occurred -- in I think it's now eight contemporary cases. I'm not sure that they have authorized a military response, arguably, in any of them.

Bodies on a street in Bucha on April 3. "The general sentiment that [Putin's] been saying is that Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist. That Ukraine is a sort of international accident…. And therefore, he says, Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist," David Simon says. "At some level, that's different from saying Ukrainians don't have a right to exist."
Bodies on a street in Bucha on April 3. "The general sentiment that [Putin's] been saying is that Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist. That Ukraine is a sort of international accident…. And therefore, he says, Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist," David Simon says. "At some level, that's different from saying Ukrainians don't have a right to exist."

But there's no mechanism that compels or that takes that compellence to the level of an actual response. I think mainly we have to see it almost as a rhetorical arrow in the quiver. It's something that can be used in arguments about, "Well, how far should we go? How much should the rest of the world absorb in terms of helping out Ukraine, the victims of an attempted genocide?" To say that a country has been attacked, and that needs a response, is one thing. But to say that aggression has led to genocide, that's another. That creates a stronger case to react in some way.

So even, say, in Europe, where, up until this point, there's been a willingness to impose sanctions, [including] sanctions that have certainly had a cost in Europe as well. But there's been a stopping point: "Well, we can’t sanction oil and gas as much as Zelenskiy would like us to." But if it shifts from aggression to aggression plus genocide, then there's more popular will and political will within sanctioning countries to say, "Yeah, we're going to raise the level of sanctions higher. We now understand that they're being targeted for genocide. We are more willing to absorb a greater cost ourselves to try to stop that." Whether that means sanctions or aid to Ukrainians, whether it's military aid, humanitarian assistance, economic aid, or perhaps even creating some momentum for a peacekeeping force that would essentially help protect [civilians].

[The use of peacekeeping forces] hasn't been entirely successful in history. There's a lot of bad precedents. If you look at, say, Bosnia. the UN was brought in during the Bosnian conflict to provide safe havens for civilians that were under attack broadly from Bosnian Serb militias. I think the lesson was properly learned that you need to support the troops that are creating the safe havens. You can't just send them there and hope for the best. That's the type of thing that the UN might muster. But even that is a big lift with Russia involved in UN decision-making.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.