Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.
By Alexey Kovalev
August 12, 2022
One of my most revealing interviews covering Russia’s war on Ukraine was with Polina Kovalevskaya. Along with her parents and two sisters, she was a refugee from Mariupol, the Ukrainian city with a prewar population of almost 450,000 that was besieged by Russian forces for almost three months. After three horrific weeks of hiding in basements during incessant Russian shelling, the family managed to escape the city, which was already a mass grave and charred ruin by then. When I asked them for a photo of their former home, they sent me a video instead. In the clip, amid a vast expanse of smoldering rubble, a Russian tank fires point-blank at an apartment building that was somehow still standing. Part of the building implodes, adding to the total devastation for miles and miles around. “This was our home,” Kovalevskaya told me when describing the video.
What makes the video so chilling wasn’t just the fact that targeting civilians is a war crime. It’s that the clip bears the unmistakable logo of RT, the Russian channel that started off in 2005 as a mostly benign attempt to improve Russia’s international image and ended up as a domestic disinformation bullhorn. The video’s unequivocal message: This is what we’re doing in Ukraine, and we’re not even going to pretend anything else.
Yet six months into this brutal war, there are still plenty of Western intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and activists willfully ignoring what Russia itself is telling them again and again, loud and clear. As a Russian journalist now in exile, I find this willful ignorance of my country deeply disturbing. Some of these pundits insist that there is a “peaceful” solution—which usually translates to stopping weapons deliveries to Ukraine and leaving the country to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to pick apart—or that the conflict is about the Kremlin’s “interests” or “security concerns.” All the while, the evidence of Russia’s actual goals and war crimes in Ukraine has become ever more overwhelming.
A considerable part of this evidence comes from Russia’s own propaganda sources, including TASS news agency photographers in occupied areas where foreigners and Russian independent media are not allowed. A host of Russian state media outlets have been meticulously documenting their military’s atrocities, with the footage presented to Russians and the world as an achievement and underlined with an incessant stream of genocidal rhetoric. One has to be actively and systematically avoiding reality to claim that the invasion is anything other than a horrific crime bordering on genocide—and all of it committed by choice. The war will end when Putin chooses to end it—or is forced to do so. The alternative is the destruction of Ukraine, which Putin and countless Russian public figures have unequivocally said is not a real country and doesn’t deserve to exist.
Still, some Western advocates of appeasement will offer perfunctory condemnations before then spending many times more column inches on diverting the blame from Putin to the United States, the West, NATO, or all of the above. With that kind of argument, they would have enthusiastic allies in the Kremlin. On Russian airwaves, the story goes that it was the Ukrainians who forced the invasion on Russia by supposedly preparing to annihilate Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority. In psychology, this is called projection.
If, like the political scientist John Mearsheimer, your arguments are being used by Russian state television to prop up the regime’s ridiculous claims that Kyiv and Washington are to blame for this war, you should probably reconsider the intellectual journey that led you to this point. If, like many of the Western leftists obsessed with the NATO war cause theory, you reject imperialism and colonialism as a matter of principle (rather than only its U.S. or British versions), you couldn’t have missed the Kremlin’s detailed public plans for dismantling Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia’s plundering of faraway lands like Sudan to fund a war of conquest and annihilation, and the Kremlin’s use of ethnic minorities as cannon fodder for the war.
If you think Ukraine has a problem with a nationalist far right, then you might have noticed the unapologetic Hitler worshippers in the ranks of the Russian forces. If, like the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, you promote peace through diplomacy—appeasement-speak for stopping military aid to Ukraine and giving Putin what he wants—you should be aware by now of the realities in the Russian-occupied areas and ask yourself if this is really the fate you are willing to condemn millions of Ukrainians to. You might take it as a sign that you’re on the wrong side of history—and just about anyone’s understanding of ethics, including the right to self-defense—when you have to say out loud that you’re not a Putin puppet.
Scholars can debate the exact definitions of what Russia is doing in Ukraine, but one thing is clear from the most immediate goal of its forces in the area they occupy: The aim is to erase not just Ukraine’s sovereignty as a state (including by annexing the occupied areas) but its very nationhood. Ukrainian place names are erased from maps and street signs, local media are replaced with Russian-language propaganda broadcasts, and students are reeducated under a Russian curriculum by teachers shipped in from Russia. The plan is not secret: It was announced on April 3 in an article in the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency—two days after the Kremlin’s forces retreated from the Kyiv region, leaving behind hundreds of dead civilians who had been raped, tortured, and executed during the monthlong occupation.
Everything in Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s “genocide handbook” has already been perpetrated in one form or another, including forced Russification and the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children to be raised as Russians in the motherland. Kremlin-loyalist media are not only cheering all of this on but demanding even more cruelty: A Komsomolskaya Pravda radio host demanded a gulag to be built for Ukrainian teachers who have been refusing to follow the Russia-supplied syllabus. In case anyone has forgotten, gulags were hard labor camps
where an estimated 1.6 million political and other prisoners perished during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s brutal rule.
The footage my interviewee sent me of her destroyed house closely resembles that in RT’s war documentary Mariupol. The Russian City. If the film’s title is not transparent enough concerning the regime’s ambitions, members of the camera crew also filmed themselves planting the Russian tricolor on the roof of Mariupol’s city council building. Lost to most Russians is the irony that Mariupol, like similarly obliterated Severodonetsk, lies in that part of Ukraine that is supposedly dominated by Russian speakers yearning to be free from Kyiv—yet it has been subjected to the most systematic destruction and cruelty.
For Russians, the consequences of refusing to accept the Kremlin’s line on Ukraine are clear: Harsh censorship laws passed in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 24 start of the invasion guarantee criminal prosecution for spreading “fake news,” “disparaging” the Russian military, and using the word “war” when describing Putin’s war. (I crossed the border out of Russia on foot with my wife the night before the law went into effect.) Criticizing the war has severe consequences: In July, Moscow City Councilor Alexei Gorinov was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for speaking out against the war. Ilya Yashin, another opposition politician, is currently on trial for anti-war campaigning. The judge demanded a closed hearing to prevent the defendant from gaining “a platform for promoting his anti-war ideas.”
Foreigners are under no such pressure when they align with the Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine. At the very heart of many Western progressives and old-style leftists’ worldview is a reflexive anti-American and anti-Western ideology, which operates from the core premise that no historical crime could ever be graver than those committed by the United States and the European powers. Hence, any anti-American leader has their natural sympathies, and any country supported by the United States—such as Ukraine—becomes deeply suspicious. Since the advent of populist parties in the West, there is also a conservative version of these anti-Western, pro-Russian sentiments—just ask former U.S. President Donald Trump.
But if you find yourself agreeing with Putin solely on the basis of agreeing with his anti-Western stance, it’s probably time to consider other factors, too. When calling for peace, an end to Western support for Ukraine, and meeting Russia’s demands for another country’s land, have you fleshed out what half a genocide might look like? It’s not as if Russia has been especially coy about its intentions in Ukraine. It has been advertising them practically 24/7 on national television. Have you asked actual Ukrainians if what you call a peace would be acceptable to them? In recent polls, more than 80 percent of Ukrainians have consistently rejected any territorial concessions to Russia. If you are a left-wing politician or activist, are you aware of your Ukrainian comrades’ opinions? When calling for peace with Putin, do you realize that displaying symbols of peace is now a prosecutable offense in Russia? Do you know what the occupied areas you’d like to trade for “peace” look like? Russia has made sure that you do.
Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev