Vladimir Putin’s brazen and barbarous invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of the artificially engineered famine Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used in 1932-1933 in an attempt to extinguish Ukraine.
Stalin unleashed a famine referred to by Ukrainians as the Holodomor (“killing by hunger”) to break Ukrainian resistance when they refused to cooperate with the Russian system of collective agriculture. Like Putin’s actions today, it was an act of genocide.
Just as energy is Putin’s gold, grain was Stalin’s. He strove to gain control over Ukraine’s fabled breadbasket to finance his ambitious industrialization and militarization plans by forcing millions of peasants onto collective farms.
When the people resisted, Stalin deployed the secret police and military to ruthlessly crush what he considered to be Ukrainian nationalism, while continuing to requisition grain for export in exchange for hard currency and engaging in the widespread persecution, deportation to the Gulag, and execution of the non-compliant.
During 1932-33, Ukraine suffered mass starvation. Nearly four million people, about 13 percent of the Ukrainian population at the time, are estimated to have died of famine in a land of unrivalled fertility. Many in the international human rights community consider the famine genocide.
Today, Russian tactics in Ukraine, such as indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, is fueling a death toll not witnessed in Europe since the days of Stalin and Hitler.
Put bluntly, after the Russian invaders were forced to withdraw from Bucha, a small town in the Kyiv region, the graphic images of mass graves, tortured and mutilated bodies, executed civilians with their hands bound behind their backs suggesting they had been first been taken captive and then killed, of streets covered with corpses, provided photographic evidence of Russia’s open and horrific war crimes. The available evidence makes it unlikely that these people died as a result of collateral damage resulting from a military exercise.
While many Ukrainian allies expressed shock and grief, the Russian president dismissed the accusation that his army committed war crimes in Bucha, accusing Ukraine of staging the atrocities. Another example of the numerous official fictions Putin monotonously propagates.
President Biden, who previously called Mr. Putin a war criminal, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have accused Russian forces of committing genocide in Ukraine. Zelensky said Putin was trying to “wipe out the idea” of a Ukrainian identity.
Moscow has categorically disputed the genocide claims and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy over its own crimes. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine.
Genocide is regarded as the gravest crime against humanity and has a strict legal connotation. The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention defines it as crimes committed “with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. It is exemplified by Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jewish population, during which more than six million Jews were killed.
Genocide is harder to prove than other violations of international law because it requires evidence of specific intent. While proving intent beyond reasonable doubt is difficult, genocide is recognizable. Russia has targeted and killed civilians; is reported to have forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and bombed a maternity hospital. Given the scale of Russian violence genocide warnings need to be taken seriously.
As evidence of Russian atrocities are revealed, one after another, use of the term genocide echoes the holodomor, the genocidal tactics favored by Stalin in the 1930s to starve the Ukrainian people.
The blame lies with Putin. He is trying to re-absorb Ukraine into Russia, push back against NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and regain Russia’s position on the world stage.
Many Russians have long been suckers for greatness.
In the process, Putin has turned Russia into an international pariah. Given what he has done, the thought of anyone in the West negotiating with him is difficult to stomach.