Published November 30, 2022
Memo to both newly elected members of Congress like J. D. Vance and incumbents like Josh Hawley and Kevin McCarthy: It’s time to stop sloganeering (“America First!” “No blank checks for Ukraine!”) and get serious about what is happening in Eastern Europe.
A good place to start would be to revisit the 1948 Genocide Convention. That treaty, to which the United States is an accessory, defined “genocide” as
any 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.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder thinks that, measured by the criteria of the Genocide Convention (to which Russia is a party), the Russian war in Ukraine is genocidal. That judgment is shared by the leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who have tried to explain Ukraine’s situation to Pope Francis in precisely those terms. In a recent lecture, Professor Snyder amplified the case for charging Russia with genocide by identifying additional “markers” of genocidal intent and activity, drawn from his study of genocidal aggressions over the past several centuries. Those “markers” include denying the statehood of the people a colonizer wants to control; declaring that a historic people or nation is neither; denying the humanity of others; refusing to admit that one has previously committed genocide against a certain population; propagating “replacement” theories claiming that “others are taking our space so we’re going to take it back”; and overloading the world’s conceptual circuitry by committing so many acts of cruelty that those not directly affected, stunned, ask whether what’s going on is really “genocide.”
In addition to meeting the Genocide Convention’s criteria, how does the Russian war in Ukraine exemplify Professor Snyder’s further “markers” of genocidal intention and action?
Denial of statehood and nationhood. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose claims have been buttressed by a false religious history propagated by high authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been denying that Ukrainians are a real nation, and that Ukraine is a genuine state, since at least 2011. The Russian dictator has continued that prevarication ever since, not least while occupying (and now claiming to have annexed) large swaths of eastern Ukraine. Putin also used overtly genocidal language in the days immediately before launching his invasion on February 24, 2022.
Dehumanization and demonization. Putin’s excuse for invading a peaceful, non-threatening neighbor was that it was a fascist non-state ruled by “Nazis.” Russian propaganda during the war has continually described Ukrainians as demonically possessed or satanic—and therefore an affront to the Christian nationalism that Putin grotesquely claims as the justification for his regime and its actions.
Displacement/Replacement. Putin and his propaganda machine have declared that the rightful inhabitants of the territory that is now Ukraine are Russians, subjected to servitude by an international conspiracy that manipulates Ukraine’s pseudo-leaders. If the usurpers can be exterminated, right order will be restored. This foul line of argument has been a staple feature of televised Russian propaganda, even as more than 100,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia to be “Russified.”
Denial of Previous Genocidal Acts. Putin’s Russia continues to deny that Stalin’s Soviet Union conducted a program of mass starvation in Ukraine in 1932–33, calling that politically motivated genocide, which killed at least three million people, a “natural disaster.” Today’s Russian attempt to cut off water, electrical power, and food in Ukraine cannot help but recall the bestiality of the Stalinist terror-famine known as the Holodomor.
Dulling Sensibilities and Consciences by Constant Prevarication About Mass Murder. International investigative bodies have confirmed genocidal Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Yet the constant denial of these realities by Russian propagandists, and by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, may have dulled the world’s sensibilities—as they were dulled in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s; as they are being dulled today in the face of China’s genocide of the Uyghurs.
Professor Snyder’s twenty-minute lecture is available on YouTube: “Timothy Snyder: 6 Steps to Prove Russian Genocide in Ukraine.” It is required viewing for any member of the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate who wishes to enter the Ukraine debate in an empirically informed and morally serious way.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.