By VICTOR RUD
Hanna Tverdokhlib holds her 7-year-old son, Volodymyr, after placing candles around a Ukrainian genocide memorial in Los Angeles to honor children killed in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From halfway around the world, Tverdokhlib feels helpless — and guilty for being safe in the United States — as she watches the war unfold.
Genocide is the crime of crimes. It’s not just the homicide of innocents, but also the destruction of their ethos, their identity as a nation. It’s the ultimate extinction.
The Washington-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights recently issued an investigatory report confirming that Russian horrors in Ukraine show a pattern of genocide and “intent to destroy” Ukrainians, and that all states under the United Nations Genocide Convention have a legal obligation to prevent genocide. It’s in full swing, as Russia not only targets civilians en masse but methodically destroys museums, schools, churches, libraries, theaters, cultural centers and concert halls, implements murderous Russification, and deports untold numbers of Ukrainians into the depths of Russia, including 232,000 children.
Couple that with Russia’s plunder of Ukrainian grain and other foodstuffs, and its simultaneous blockade of Ukrainian sea ports and export of 28 million tons of grain, threatening a “global food catastrophe.” As “Ukraine fatigue” begins to ferment, we should reflect on the precedent and consequences of both.
There’s a template. In his May 31, 1933, report to the Royal Embassy of Italy in Moscow, Italy’s consul in Kharkiv wrote that Joseph Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine was engineered “to dispose of the Ukrainian problem.” The consul quoted the terminology of a top officer of the Soviet GPU secret police who explained that the purpose was to change the “ethnographic materials” of Ukraine. The consul concluded, “The current disaster will bring about a predominantly Russian colonization of Ukraine. Ukraine will become a de facto Russian region.”
The Holodomor caused millions of Ukrainians to starve to death; estimates range from 4 million to 10 million, a figure furtively whispered at the time by members of the Soviet nomenklatura — furtively because uttering the word “famine” was made a capital crime. (Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin similarly has outlawed using the word “war.”)
The prequel was Ukraine’s independence in 1918 from the erstwhile Russian Empire. On the day that it recognized Ukraine, Russia invaded and eventually re-hammered that empire into the USSR. Elimination of Ukraine’s political, cultural and religious strata was not enough, as resistance to Moscow’s rule continued. Moscow then attacked the Ukrainian countryside, home to 80 percent of the population and the wellspring of Ukrainian national identity. It blockaded the
entirety of Ukraine, as well as (tellingly) the heavily Ukrainian populated regions of Russia itself. No people were allowed out, no food was allowed in. The countryside was stripped not simply of grain but of anything remotely edible. Cooking utensils, ovens and farming tools were destroyed.
Simultaneously, Moscow massively resettled Russians into the now skeletonized Ukrainian hamlets and villages. The German consulate in Kyiv wrote that “Ukrainian Ukraine has been destroyed.” Only then did Stalin feel sufficiently secure to transfer the capital of his faux “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” from its temporary capital in Kharkiv to Ukraine’s historic capital of Kyiv. (Think Putin and his puppet “Peoples’ Republics” in Ukraine’s occupied east.)
In the West, for generations, survivor accounts of this genocide were dismissed, ridiculed, denied or excused as simply the unintended consequence of collectivization of agriculture. The purpose instead, Oxford professor Norman Davies wrote, was to kill “Ukrainian nationhood.” As he put it, “The world has seen many terrible famines, many aggravated by civil war. But a famine organized as a genocidal act of state policy must be considered unique.”
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” and is the father of the U.N. Genocide Convention, condemned not just the murder of millions but also the evisceration of Ukraine’s national ethos: “This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.” In 1988, the Congressional Commission on the Ukraine Famine concluded the same.
Aware of it all, the world nevertheless stood mum. Astonishingly, Washington went further and in 1933 extended diplomatic recognition to the Kremlin. (Think diplomatic recognition of Adolf Hitler at the height of the Holocaust.) It was the ultimate “reset,” a geopolitical disaster of immeasurable moment for the West. The prestige of America’s diplomatic recognition not only masked and abetted the crime but legitimized and accepted the perpetrator. Moreover, the perpetrator had anointed itself as the vanguard in a global war to destroy the very host of the diplomatic soiree. We fed the Third Horseman. For good measure, in post-war Europe, American and British troops joined with the Soviet NKVD in repatriating Ukrainian survivors back to the Soviet Union. It was bloody.
Since Russian control of Ukraine was pivotal to the creation and ongoing viability of the USSR, not surprisingly, Ukraine’s reassertion of its independence in 1991 ensured the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We declared “we won” and promptly hectored Ukraine into surrendering the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for “security assurances.”
Today, Russia proudly and repeatedly blares that Ukrainians must be destroyed as a nation. The vitriolic dehumanization of Ukrainians is chilling. “Cretins,” “scum,” “filth” and bald “nonexistence” echoes perfectly with “ethnographic materials” cited by the Italian consul, and with Hitler’s “Untermenschen.”
Putin, like Stalin, uses food as a weapon, mining Ukrainian fields, destroying agricultural equipment, stealing several hundred thousand tons of grain and other foodstuffs, and starving the innocents. Now he wants to barter the release of Ukraine’s grain in exchange for sanctions relief.
To his nuclear arsenal he has added food as a weapon of mass destruction and is waging war against global food security. A nation that can feed 400 million of the world’s population is reeling.
This past Friday, in a television interview Putin blamed all on the West and abruptly “guaranteed” peaceful passage for vessels. (He also guaranteed he would not invade, that Russian troops were not in Crimea, etc.) Truly, he said last year, “Although they [the American establishment] think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic and cultural-moral code.”
Putin follows Stalin’s template. We dare not follow ours. We must redeem an infamy, not just to cleanse moral sordor but because it ensures our global security posture. If “Ukraine fatigue” overcomes us — if we barter away the victim whose very existence ensured the fall of the USSR — what will friend and foe conclude about us? If we again abandon our most significant asset as a counterweight to Russian predation, what will be our deterrent credibility in dealing with Beijing, Pyongyang or Tehran?
Victor Rud has practiced international law in New York and New Jersey for 35 years. He is the past chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is a senior adviser to Open Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization in Ukraine.