Russia Intends to Commit Genocide in Ukraine, Six Ways to Prove It. Lecture by Timothy Snyder

Sunday, 23 October 2022

Ukraine proves in other countries (both legally and politically) that Putin's army has already reached the level of genocide, and most importantly - that it's a deliberate, intended crime. But the key is to prove a genocidal intention. This is a requirement of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

On Friday, European Pravda covered a conference in Berlin called "International Law Against Genocide". One of the speeches there, by the American historian, professor Timothy Snyder, deserves particular attention. We publish his address in full.

Both video and text versions are available:


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I was asked to speak about the genocidal intention.

But it seems to me that in this discussion about genocide we're in a very odd place.

To my view, еhe genocidal intent of this war has been clear even before the war began.

The proclamations that mr.Putin issued in July of 2021 were openly genocidal and that the language that he used in the days right before the war was also clearly genocidal.

But it troubles me that countries whose constitutional orders and whose everyday political rhetoric are very much tied up to the historical fact of the Holocaust – I mean Israel and Germany – have been so slow to recognize the obviously genocidal character of this war, and have done so little to hinder it.

There's a particular sadness in that.

But let me take my time to make my argument about the genocidal intention (of Russia’s actions -EP).

Not even Hitler gave the order: "Let the genocide begin."

It seems to me that in the discussions of intention (which of course is necessary according to the Genocide Convention of 1948!) people get pushed back to a naive construction where the posture is: we need to get inside the accused person’s mind (to find the evidence -EP).

But of course, we can't get there; there is no way to get an X-ray of someone's mind. And it leads us to the fact then the entire 1948 Genocide Convention becomes absolutely meaningless, if we can’t prove a genocidal intention (EP NOTE: the Convention requires to prove the intention to commit genocide as the key prerequisite for legal recognition that the genocide has taken place)

As a historian, I want to make the point that we, historians, arrive at judgments about intent not expecting to find some kind of X-ray. It has to do with the contexts, the discourses, and the circumstances.         

Let me show that with the case of Adolf Hitler.

While the Holocaust of Jews is a clear example of genocide, there was no clear order or the actual moment where you could say literally: it is the moment when the genocide began, because we know what Hitler’s state of mind was. No, his intention is built up by historians on the basis of circumstances and statements and conjunctures. Should use this standard here, too.

So let me provide you with a handful of pretty good historical indicators of genocidal intent.

The first indicator of genocidal intent one could draw from colonial history.

It would be the description of a state as not a state. Colonial powers, encountering other political units, did not recognize them as states, and that was generally a prologue or an indicator of a coming genocide.

A second indicator comes from the 20th century.

That is the description of a people as not a people. A society as not a society. A nation as not a nation. A social group is not recognized as such.

A third indicator comes both from the 20th century but also has examples before.

This is the denial that people are human. So you encounter individuals, but you claim that for one reason or another they're not actually human beings.

A fourth indicator comes from the late 20th century and from the present.

This indicator is retrospective. When people deny that a previous genocide has taken place, in fact, it means that they desire to commit a kind of new genocide now. The obvious example here is neo-Nazis. They deny the Holocaust and it doesn’t mean that they deny the facts; it means that they desire such an event to take place again.

A fifth indicator, now moving from history into the present: it’s a theory which is decades old, but is very much present around the world now.

We call it "replacement". The idea is that some people can come and take our space, replacing us – and therefore we have a right to replace them.

This was very present in the Nazi’s view of the world, and it is also very present in Putin's view of the world.

The final, sixth indicator is very much from the present day.

Not historical, but worth mentioning to understand contemporary Russian practice. I call it a postmodern indicator. The postmodern indicator is that you overload the system, supplying so much evidence of genocide. And being overloaded by this, people begin to ask whether this is really a genocide. I realize that this looks paradoxical, but the problem today is not that there's a lack of evidence. The problem is the overabundance of evidence that leads to a kind of perverse cycle where people becomes not sure if this is genocide. I believe that's what's actually happening.

Although I’m sure that every single genocidal practice that's mentioned in the Article 2 of the 1948 Genocided Convention has been carried out.

And I want to talk about how these six indicators of intention are clearly evident in Russian actions within the last eight months or even earlier.

How to prove the crime of genocide through Putin's intentions

The first one is a denial that the state is a state.

Putin has been denying that Ukraine is a state very clearly since at least 2011 (EP NOTE: first known Putin’s denials of Ukraine’s sovereignty are dated back in 2008, he said that at the Bucharest NATO Summit). He repeated that in 2013, before the 2014 war. And there was an onrush of such rhetoric in 2021, including a very long and specific essay signed by Putin.

And now, during the war, there's a systematic refusal to recognize the Ukrainian state as such, the Ukrainian government or Ukrainian officials. There's a systematic practice of applying abusive language to all institutions that might be Ukrainian.

The second is the denial of the Ukrainian people, as a people.

Hitler provides a very good example of this indicator: in Mein Kampf and elsewhere he describes the Jews as not being of this earth. They're not attached to the land. They don't belong where they are. And this is strikingly similar to the way that Ukrainians are discussed by Putin and in Russian propaganda.

Generally, the notion is that in Ukraine there are real people, and those real people are Russians. But somehow they're governed by a thin layer of exotics people from elsewhere. Propagandists refer to these people variously: as Poles or "Habsburgs" or Nazis, or Jews or Europeans – and it doesn't really matter. The key is that those people don't really belong on the land. They are servants of an international conspiracy, loyal to someone elsewhere.

And therefore, if these people can be exterminated, then the natural order will be restored. The right people will be on the land, and they will understand themselves as Russians.

That is the logic of Mein Kampf, and it's the logic on Russian television today. I'll point to the recent appearance of Pavel Gubarev, when he spoke of exterminating as many Ukrainians as had to be exterminated. This is the logic.

We exterminate all the ones who think they're Ukrainians until we get to the point where the remaining people understand: they are Russians.

The third indicator is the denial that people are human.

Here I'll stay with that same clip from Pavel Gubarev, or a recent propaganda program by Solovyov. Here we’re confronted with the idea that Ukrainians are possessed. And the reason why there is Ukraine is that people are possessed by the devil. This might seem like something that can be easily dismissed as laughable, but it is pretty widespread in Russian discussions of Ukraine.

One can find it in the fascist theory of Ivan Illin, a thinker whom Mr. Putin has cited consistently over the last decade or more and most recently on September 30th in his speech about the referenda. In this idea, Ukrainians are "servants of Satan". This notion is very deeply rooted in Russian Christian nationalism or Russian Christian fascism, where of course Satan is associated with the Jews. So, we get an actual nazi idea.

The Fourth criterion is a denial that other genocides took place in the past.

There was abundant evidence of this, like the memory loss in the USSR which forbade people from Speaking of the 1939 alliance with Hitler, and it was strengthened in Russia right before this war began.

Also, it is the official Russian policy on the Holodomor, committed by the Soviet Union in Ukraine, which has been strengthened as this war. A monument to Holodomor was brought down in occupied Mariupol. Russians say there couldn't have been a political motive behind Holodomor, "it was simply a natural disaster".

And saying this, Russians are trying to cut off water supplies and cut off power supplies so millions of Ukrainians will suffer and die.

That illustrates: when you deny a political motive for a genocide in the past, you're also denying that there's a political motive in the future. You're just saying that everything is natural and going the way that it should be.

Indicator number five is the contemporary replacement theory.

The idea is that Russians are being replaced by other races, and they're fighting back.

And I should note that in this replacement theory mode, the genocide that we're talking about is not limited to Ukrainians. Throughout this war, males from the indigenous peoples in the Eastern and Southern parts of the Russian Federation are sent in hugely disproportionate numbers to die on the front.

Meanwhile, women and children from Ukraine have been deported to Russia’s territory, because they are white and they can be assimilated into the Russian population.

There's an attempt to implement what fascists see as a replacement, and not only with Ukrainians.

A specific example of this is the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula, who used to suffer from many waves of deportation. In the spring of 1944 under Stalin every single Crimean Tatar was deported. Since 1991, many have returned, but now, under the Russian occupation, they're specifically targeted for oppression and right now specifically targeted for mobilization so they can die elsewhere.

This is a genocidal element which goes beyond the Ukrainians.

The 6th, the final element is a "postmodern"

Russia is deliberately overloading the system, trying to make things hard to understand it. For instance, when Russians claim that Ukrainians are Nazis, this is just confusing. It's a fascist practice in the sense that it is simply hate speech when Russians refer to Ukrainians as Nazis.

Or when they claim that Ukrainians are non human, and they deserve whatever they get.

There's so much of it that we become jaded. Over weeks and months, our sensibility is dulled and we just expect more and more.

Therefore we have to be very careful that we're not falling into some kind of perverse cycle. The evidence for intent here is very clear by historical standards. It's very clear, unusually clear.

The danger is that because there's so much evidence of intent, we can start expecting even more, even clearer proof.

But in my view, genocidal intent by Putin has been very clear for a very long time.


Timothy Snyder,

Berlin, 21.10.2022

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