The view of a burnt and destroyed street in Bucha, a suburb north of Kyiv. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is Putin’s war turning genocidal?

Campaign Diary: Evidence of Russian war crimes found in Bucha

As I observed in my last report for The Critic, wider themes are emerging from the Russo-Ukraine war. We are in danger of missing them, for we are wrapped up in the day-to-day nuances of battle, and the currency of combat, its casualties.

We have finally unravelled the Russian leader’s motivation for going to war, though still not its timing. This is Putin’s personal crusade, into which he has dragged the Russian people. Preparing the ground, he has narrowed their minds by closing off other sources of news, substituting a diet of hate and rampant nationalism. He has a template to follow. He is aware, because he has referred to it, of the famous passage in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “When we speak of new territory in Europe today, we must think of Russia. Destiny itself points the way there.” This evolved into Lebensraum (“living space”), the German term used to justify the 1941 invasion. I checked the 6,000-word historical essay on Ukraine, that President Putin published last year.

Even Putin’s language imitates that of Hitler’s polemical work

Designed to justify his 2022 attack, it was laced with similar cultural and spiritual reasons as to why his country and its neighbour should be together again. “Russians and Ukrainians share a common heritage and destiny,” he wrote, while lamenting the “formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia”. His July 2021 fable, more Brothers Grimm than Encyclopaedia Britannica, could almost have been lifted out of Mein Kampf, with its mentions of destiny, the construction of false history, ethnicity of nations and regaining territories. Even Putin’s language imitates that of Hitler’s polemical work. Its purpose is the same: to prepare his domestic audience for the reunification of Ukraine, and who knows where else, with the Greater Russian Rei… sorry, Federation.

Putin’s methods also reflect his interpretation of Russo-Ukrainian culture and ethnicity. They happen to mirror in chilling fashion what happened in the Great Patriotic War. Amongst the reports flooding in are stories, all of which appear to be verified, of the rapes of Ukrainian women by Russian troops. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented cases of Russian troops committing “possible war crimes against civilians in the Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions, including cases of repeated rape, and summary executions”. Soldiers were also implicated in looting, HRW added.

Then there are deportations into Russia of up to 50,000 residents from Mariupol and elsewhere. Ukrainian nationals are registered on lists by Russian military policemen, stripped of their belongings always mobile phones, sometimes even clothing and taken away under guard in transport brought in for the purpose. According to Ukraine’s human-rights spokesperson, Lyudmyla Denisova: “Our citizens are being forcibly sent to various economically depressed cities in Russia. They are issued papers that require them to remain there, with the obligation to labour at a specified place of work. They have no right to leave for at least two years.”

On 3 April, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, listed 11 mayors of towns and cities who had been kidnapped and whisked away. She announced that Olga Sukhenko, mayor of Motyjin (west of Kyiv), along with her husband and son, had been “killed in captivity” by Russian soldiers after their abduction on 26 March. The mayors have left behind communities where schools, universities and technical colleges have been attacked; where libraries have been burned; shopping centres and markets hit by missiles; sports centres and theatres bombed. CCTV cameras have captured fuel depots in flames, shops being looted, civilians and farmyards stripped bare of livestock and machinery.

At Kreminna, in the Luhansk region, a Russian tank allegedly opened fire on a home for the elderly, killing 56. Hospitals, maternity homes and even the humanitarian corridors for supposedly safe evacuation have been shelled. I had put these abductions, the targeting of buildings and civilian deaths, down to the confusion of war and collateral damage that accompanies city fighting. It is not.

The numbers of cultural targets destroyed is not spontaneous

The testimony of the mayor of the city of Chernihiv, Vladyslav Atroshenko, hints at what is taking place. “They are bombing residential areas from low altitude in absolutely clear weather and deliberately destroying our civilian infrastructure,” he told a Ukrainian news channel. “Schools, kindergartens, residential buildings and even the local football stadium have all been hit.” I have been cautious in assessing such reports, which can be challenging to verify. However, similar tales from community leaders, human rights observers and western journalists are pouring in from every corner of Ukraine under attack. The ongoing destruction of his community is such, noted Mayor Atroshenko, “that we live without dates or days of the week”.

What Putin has embarked upon, in a grizzly imitation of Mein Kampf and the Nazi invasion of 1941, is the deliberate genocidal destruction of a people, the Ukrainians. Recalcitrant villagers are threatened by Russian troops with “sending in the Chechens”, who have a reputation for murder and mayhem second only to that of the SS on an earlier Eastern Front. The numbers of cultural targets destroyed, and the methodology of deportations is not spontaneous.

It was all pre-planned. I cannot say whether the Russian missile strike that damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial on 1 March, was a deliberate act, or a near-miss for the adjacent Kyiv TV tower. Yet, as no apology has been forthcoming, it appears that Moscow is unmoved at destroying the memory of nearly 34,000 Jewish people — Soviet citizens all — murdered over a 36-hour period by the Nazis in September 1941.

As I was writing this, the world’s media was deluged with reports of mass executions in the once-quiet town of Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, during its occupation by Russian Federation forces. Journalists from the internationally-accredited Associated Press (AP) news agency, accompanying liberating Ukrainian troops, reported at least 21 people lying dead around the town. “From the bodies of nine, all in civilian clothes, it was apparent they had been executed at close range, their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the head.”

On 3 April, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General, Iryna Venedyktova, announced that the remains of 410 murdered civilians had been recovered from towns in the wider Kyiv area, after Ukrainian troops had pushed out Chechen and Russian fighters. From an apparent mass grave in the grounds of the Church of St Andrew and All Saints, we have been warned that the body count in Bucha alone may run into several hundred.

The perpetrators need to be brainwashed and reassured of their immunity

Bucha reminds us of the destruction of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, that featured in the opening minutes of the World at War television series I mentioned on 2 April. Or Tulle in Normandy, or Lidice near Prague. All three settlements, and there were many more across Nazi-occupied Europe, were targeted by SS units and wiped out. Elsewhere, the Third Reich burnt down or destroyed 1,377 villages in Ukraine alone. One was the community of Koryukivka, in the Chernihiv oblast (region), where more than 7,000 residents were slaughtered during 1–2 March 1943. Now this is happening all over again, and in some of the same locations.

History tells us that such tragedies are not accidents, but involve planning, and direction from the top. The perpetrators need to be brainwashed and reassured of their immunity from prosecution, that what they are doing is a service for their state. It is no accident that the Russian army was followed into Ukraine by thousands of OMON (an acronym that translates as “Special Purpose Mobile Unit”) riot police.

They sound chillingly similar in name and purpose to the Einsatzgruppen (meaning “deployment groups”), the Nazi killing squads that roamed behind the lines of the Eastern Front in the 1940s. OMON is part of the Rosgvardiya, Russia’s National Guard, which reports directly to President Putin. It is OMON that has been kidnapping mayors, processing forced evacuees and policing newly-occupied towns. On 9 March in Kherson, it was Rosgvardyia units that moved in to beat and arrest an estimated 400 residents protesting against the Russian occupation. They are the Kremlin’s Gestapo.

Perhaps the saddest story is that of Boris Romanschenko, born near Sumy, Ukraine, in 1926. Arrested in a trawl for forced labour, the 16-year-old was brought to Dortmund by German forces in 1942, where he was assigned to mining work underground. January 1943 found him on the roster of Buchenwald concentration camp, which assigned him to the German Research Institute at Peenemünde, where he helped weld V2 rockets. RAF bombing of the test site forced the V-2 project, with Romanschenko in tow, to the underground factory at Nordhausen in the Harz mountains, where the death rate was over 40 per cent.

He survived all of this, including a later spell in Bergen-Belsen, but on 18 March 2022, his apartment building in Kharkiv was hit by Russian artillery fire, killing the 96-year-old in his own home. Romanschenko was not a specific target, but neither has there been any statement of regret from Moscow. Although the Russian invasion was mounted against the “Neo-Nazis in control of Ukraine”, the murder of Holocaust survivors appears to be one of the Kremlin’s permissible tactics to achieve its end state.

The only buildings that appear to have been spared are churches

The only buildings that appear to have been spared are churches. Presumably this is because Archbishop Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus, and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church is backing Moscow’s “holy war” and has eyes on reclaiming his breakaway brethren and their places of worship. The Kyiv-based Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by Metropolitan Epiphanius, broke away from its parent in Moscow and was officially recognised at an international synod in 2018. While Kirill may be a pawn in Putin’s plans for territorial aggrandisement, Putin is equally a pawn in the Patriarch’s holy war. In a very characteristic Eastern Orthodox spat, Kirill delivered a sermon on 6 March, observing that Russia’s occupation of “evil” Ukraine was part of a larger “metaphysical struggle” against “immoral Western values”.

Meanwhile, Putin’s July 2021 essay revealed his burning hatred for the Ukraine that currently is, and how and why it must be replaced. This is why, at the time of writing, some four million Ukrainians, half of them children, are estimated by the UN to have left their country, with at least 6.5 million internally displaced, adrift from their homes. They are not so much fleeing the fighting, as fleeing the Russians, for they know what this war is really about. As early as 3 March, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said he would start to document “possible crimes against humanity, or genocide committed in Ukraine”.

More recently, on 23 March, Beth Van Schaack, the US Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, assessed that Russia “was committing war crimes in Ukraine”, an accusation echoed by Joe Biden. With experience of similar crimes committed in Rwanda (where I was connected with the judicial process) and Bosnia (which I witnessed as part of the peace keeping force), the prosecutors know what to look for, and already have more than a suspicion that Russia’s abuses in Ukraine are not the result of accidental shelling or rogue soldiery. They think this is a systematic pattern, authorised and encouraged from the very top by the man who has intensely studied what happened in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War.

We have met this kind of directed, genocidal killing before

We have met this kind of directed, genocidal killing before, most recently in Rwanda during 1994 and then in the Bosnian wars. From both experiences evolved the new discipline of forensic archaeology, which treats suspicious burials as a crime scene. From meticulous examination of human remains and the context of the burial site, victims and perpetrators can be identified. Bullets and shell casings, ropes and knives, spades and mechanical excavators, shoes and vehicle tyres, all leave distinct signatures that can be tied to individual weapons and specific people.

When not working on recent massacre sites, these specialists keep their hand in by uncovering and identifying soldiers killed on the battlegrounds of the 191418 Western Front. They are some of the most dedicated individuals I know. Their colleagues, skilled in deciphering handwriting and reconstructing decaying or shredded documents, will follow the paper trail right to the top. This is what convicted the Serb leaders President Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic of war crimes in Bosnia. Make no mistake, whoever was responsible will be identified.

As this report has been dark in tone, I will leave you on a lighter note. On 31 March the Russian embassy noted with fury that one of the World War II tanks on the Soviet War Memorial in central Berlin had been covered with a Ukrainian flag. Russian Ambassador Sergei Nechaev was particularly strident in his demand that the flag be removed, and the perpetrators arrested. His Excellency, already under the spotlight after one of his diplomats “carelessly fell” from a top floor window of his embassy last year, was said to be incandescent at the Berlin authorities’ reply: “As the tank was a T-34, which was developed in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, we see no reason to do anything.” Think again, when you next claim the Germans have no sense of humour.

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