April 16, 2022

The War in Ukraine: Why the Rush to Call It Genocide?

by Hal Gershowitz

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Many journalists and world leaders, including President Biden, have labeled Putin’s war against Ukraine as Genocide. But is it?

Putin can be guilty of, and have to answer for, the intentional and indiscriminate mass-targeting (killing) of civilians, which is a war crime, without being guilty of genocide, which is, essentially, the targeting of a specific, generally ethnic, political or national group, for extinction or permanent exile. In theory, were Putin to be tried for the war crimes he is committing and be found guilty, the penalty would be just as severe as being found guilty of genocide. So, distinguishing between lethal war crimes and genocide becomes a matter of historical condemnation. The victims are, tragically, just as dead in either case.

Russian atrocities against civilians are a war crime, but the offense may not necessarily be genocide. Debating, at this stage of the conflict, whether Vladimir Putin, the wannabe Czar of Russia, is guilty of genocide (a crime of historical definition and specificity) demeans the tragedy to which the Ukrainian victims are being subjected. They are being targeted and killed to destroy the Ukrainian will to fight (an incredibly historic miscalculation). The magnitude of the crime the Ukrainian People are suffering isn’t diminished because the crime may or may not, ultimately, comport with the technical definition of genocide.

The noun, genocide, is a composite of the Greek “genos” or clan, and the Latin “cide,” or literally, “to kill.” It was first catapulted onto the pages of history in 1944. That’s when a Jewish lawyer in Poland, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term to describe the deliberate, calculated and unrelenting targeting of Jews and other distinct ethnic groups for extinction by the Nazis. Genocide is why the Nazi war against the Jews became widely known as the Holocaust.

Now there is a case to be made for calling Putin’s war against Ukraine “genocide,” and it is found in his own treatise, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he denies there ever has been a separate Ukrainian nation or a distinct Ukrainian people. Ukrainians, he contends, are ethnic Russians, so Ukraine is guilty of occupying Russian lands. This is somewhat reminiscent of Hitler’s justification for grabbing the Sudetenland prior to the Second World War. However, the belated Ukraine-is-Russia argument Putin is making is irrelevant given the nuclear accords signed by the Russian Federation and the nation of Ukraine thirty years ago, to which the United States and Britain are also signatories. That train left the station thirty years ago. Russia did, in fact, specifically recognize and agree to respect Ukrainian political independence.

Whether Russia has committed genocide is relevant and will be discussed for many years. “We have to call this what it is,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said when Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion and conquest of Ukraine. “Russia’s criminal actions against Ukraine show signs of genocide,” he said, which is true. He wisely called for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to send war-crimes investigators as a first step.

Genocide is a relatively new word, but the crime it describes is probably as old as man’s propensity to organize into communities. The term simply refers to an organized effort to exterminate other communities. Fighting a savage and deadly war in which many people die may be despicable, but not necessarily genocide. Fighting savagely to cause a People to surrender or compromise is not necessarily genocide either. However, fighting savagely for the specific purpose of driving a People to extinction is genocide.

Genocide is the manifestation of carefully conceived plans to eliminate a defined group of people from existence, generally because of their specific ethnicity or political or religious beliefs. It is not a by-product of war, although, historically, it has been the very purpose of many wars. Genocide far transcends the reckless targeting of civilians, which tragically is often a handmaiden to war. What Vladimir Putin is inflicting upon the Ukrainian people is no less tragic and no less awful, regardless of whether it comports with the well-established and specific 20th-century recognition of the term genocide. When a conflict is a genocide, the decision by the attacked entity to surrender to the attacking entity does not end the conflict. Surrender may merely initiate the commencement of, pardon the term, a final solution.

There are many notorious 20th century examples of genocide, such as China’s so-called Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution (1949 to 1976), which resulted in millions of deaths. It is estimated that twenty million Russians were killed by Joseph Stalin’s direct orders to exterminate the Kulaks, a social class of wealthy farmers. In 1994 Rwanda marauders from the majority Hutu community murdered an estimated 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi community. And then there is Adolf Hitler’s genocide which led to the death of around 17 million Jews, homosexuals, Romanian gypsies, and other minority groups the führer considered undesirable.

While the term “genocide” is relatively new, the crime is ancient.

Scholars agree that the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BC comports with the definition of genocide as enshrined by the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention; “the intentional destruction in whole or in part of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”  It is said that Marcus Porcius Cato, soldier and Senator of Rome, ended every speech in the Roman Senate with, “Carthage Must be Destroyed.” And indeed, Carthage was destroyed. According to Ben Kiernan’s “The First Genocide: Carthage,” Roman legions razed the city and dispersed into slavery 55,000 survivors, including 25,000 women.

Between 1209 and 1229, the Roman Church massacred the Catholic sect known as the Cathars in the historic Albigensian Crusade, which devastated a wide swath of the south of France. Some maintain that the war against the Cathars wasn’t genocide because both sides were Catholic. Nonetheless, it was a war of absolute annihilation over religious belief.

And the annihilating brutality described in the book of Joshua seems to come pretty close to comporting with the modern definition of genocide, as does the commandment we read in the Book of Numbers for the Israelites to exterminate the Midianites or the violence directed against the Canaanites.

The evidence is mounting day by day of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. These crimes may or may not ultimately be adjudicated to be genocide. Whether the purpose is to cause Ukraine to sue for peace or to cause the extinction of the Ukrainian people will determine whether Russia is guilty of genocide.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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9 responses to “The War in Ukraine: Why the Rush to Call It Genocide?”

  1. Jim katz says:

    Hal. Does the English extermination of Native Americans over the period of 1620 To 1800 qualify as genocide? There were smallpox and forced marches.

  2. Jamie Kabler says:

    You are the professor
    I always learn new history in your brilliant columns

  3. Gary Sweetapple says:

    Disappointing to read such a weak, Ill planned column.

  4. Carole Sukman says:

    Hal, your breadth of knowledge never ceases to amaze me!

  5. Judy says:

    I’ve read and see folks interviewed that say they are told by the Russians that they are being shot (two young boys in particular) because they’re Jews…..Sure sounds like genocide to me… Just because we don’t want to believe it doesn’t make it so….

  6. Dennis W. Montoya says:

    The wholesale slaughter of civilians and decimation of cities with the intent to erase a nation from independent existence certainly sounds like “the targeting of a specific, generally ethnic, political or national group, for extinction or permanent exile” to me, but I’m only a high school math and science teacher.

  7. Glenn Pfalmer says:

    Any attempt to eliminate a language, culture, or beliefs is genocide

  8. Dianet says:

    Putin claims he is targeting Nazis. While none are there, doesn’t that fit the definition of genocide?

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