Kremlin propaganda is directly responsible for Russia's genocide in Ukraine, war-crime investigators say
- Russian propaganda initially claimed the war there was "denazify" Ukraine and help its people.
- It has since shifted to demonizing Ukrainian people and calling for their destruction.
In an April 4 op-ed published by Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency, the pro-Kremlin journalist Timofey Sergeyetsev called for the destruction of Ukraine's national identity and a campaign of brutal punishment of its people.
He wrote that Ukraine must be "denazified" and its people made to "assimilate" the experience of the war "as a historical lesson and atonement for [their] guilt."
He called for imprisonment, forced labor, and death for Ukrainians who refused to comply with the Kremlin's mission to assimilate the country into Russia.
That same day, evidence began to emerge of a brutal campaign of torture and executions by Russian forces on Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, a town near the capital Kyiv.
For Wayne Jordash, a barrister advising Ukrainian officials investigating possible Russian war crimes, the Bucha atrocities were the culmination of escalating attacks on Ukrainian civilians that can be directly linked to Russian state media.
"I don't think I've seen a clearer call to attack civilians or a clearer call to genocide in any modern-day conflict," said Jordash, who has advised governments, including Libya's and Vietnam's, on human rights.
The United Nations defines genocide as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." The International Criminal Court, which prosecutes war crimes and other breaches of international law, is already investigating atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.
One problem facing war-crimes investigations is that they often struggle to link wrongdoing on the ground with politicians and senior commanders, Jordash said.
Those leaders often argue that the atrocities were nothing to do with them, blaming their subordinates instead.
But the pervasiveness of anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Russian state media outlets, and the close control the Kremlin exerts over them, gives investigators an opening, he said.
"I think it make it much easier to connect Putin and the immediate national-security team and some of the propagandists" to atrocities committed by Russian troops, he said.
For Jordash, Russian military attacks on civilians fall into a pattern.
After Russia launched its invasion on February 24, the Russian military targeted civilian infrastructure in an apparent bid to force ordinary Ukrainians into compliance, he said.
Missile attacks hit apartment buildings in Kyiv and in the strategically vital port city of Mariupol at the time.
Intelligence officials and some evidence from within Russian suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin initially expected to topple the Ukrainian government in days, and for most civilians to welcome the occupation — an assumption that turned out far from the truth.
As Ukrainians continued to resist and Russia's advance on Kyiv stalled, Putin's forces unleashed a campaign of brutal violence on civilians.
"At that point, I think the violence took on a different form and sort of destructive form which has no obvious political purpose or military purpose other than to destroy part or all of the Ukrainian people," said Jordash.
In March, around the same time Russia's advance on Kyiv was halted by Ukrainian forces, the Kremlin's propaganda shifted.
Early on in the invasion, it had focused on portraying the Ukrainian government as hijacked by "Nazis," but it soon moved its focus to portraying the entire civilian population as somehow deserving of punishment, said Jordash.
"What you saw was an increased focus on the Ukrainian people having to atone for the Nazism or somehow the original sin of being the Ukrainian, which to me is consistent with an idea of a theory that Ukrainians or at least part of them should be destroyed, simply for being Ukrainian," said Jordash.
Since then, Russian state propagandists and Kremlin officials have kept up a steady drumbeat of propaganda against the Ukrainian people, disparaging the notion of Ukrainian national identity and suggesting Ukrainians were somehow guilty of crimes which Russia had to punish them for.
On March 26 — when Russian troops were occupying Bucha — Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-run RT network, said that "significant part of the Ukrainian nation was in the grip of the Nazi frenzy."
On April 5, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian prime minister and president wo now helps run its Security Council, described Ukraine as a "completely fake" nation and "a copy of the Third Reich" that doesn't deserve to exist.
In an April 15 appearance on Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov's show on Russia's Channel 1, a commentator railed against notions of Ukrainian national identity, and said Russia would be "eradicating it out of them," according to a translation of the remarks by Julia Davis, who monitors Russian media for The Daily Beast.
—Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) April 15, 2022
More recently, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov — in a bid to explain how Ukraine could be in the grip of neo-Nazism while its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish — claimed that Hitler may have been Jewish and that "the most ardent anti-Semites are often Jews." It drew outrage from Israeli leaders, prompting an apology from Putin.
How propaganda drives troops on the ground
There is concrete evidence that anti-Ukrainian propaganda in state media influenced Russian troops on the ground, said Eugene Finkel, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who analyzes genocide and political violence.
"We know of explicit targeting of people associated with the Ukrainian national identity, such as local leaders and state officials, teachers, veterans," he told Insider.
"We also have evidence that, in some instances, Russian soldiers explicitly justified their violence against civilians by referring to articles they read in the Russian media."
"For now we are just scratching the surface and still don't know to which extent this propaganda drove the violence, but we already do know that it did play at least some role," he said.
But even if prosecutors are able to demonstrate that Russia has perpetrated genocide in Ukraine, and state propaganda is found to have orchestrated the violence, the prospects of bringing those responsible to justice appear remote.
Russia, which is not a signatory of the International Criminal Court, would need to deport suspects for trial. This prospect seems vanishingly remote, Jordash said.
Ukraine has started prosecuting captured Russian soldiers accused of war crimes, with a 21-year-old Russian soldier this week pleading guilty to murdering a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian. But many of those believed to be responsible for atrocities are beyond the reach of prosecutors.
If the evidence trail leads investigators back to Putin, international prosecutors could still decide to charge the Russian leader with genocide.
Though largely symbolic, it would be an unprecedented accusation to level against a leader of Putin's stature and would further consolidate his status as an international pariah, Jordash said.
If Putin were charged, countries which are signatories to the ICC could arrest him if he were ever in their territory, Jordash said.
For that reason, any charges would "at least make life very difficult for him and mean that he can only travel to his equally brutal allies around the world," Jordash said.
"I mean that for me at least would be some reason to celebrate, even if it's an incomplete solution."
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