Ukrainians would face terror on a scale not seen in Europe since the 20th-century era of totalitarian
By Adrian Karatnycky
December 19, 2023
With Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalled and the U.S. Congress deadlocked over crucial military aid, some analysts have begun raising the specter of a turning point in the war that could lead to a Ukrainian defeat. While the situation on the ground is still far from dire, it could rapidly deteriorate in the absence of a significant infusion of U.S. military support for Ukraine.
The consequences of a Ukrainian defeat need to be fully understood. The likely geopolitical consequences are easy to anticipate. The defeat of a Western-backed country would embolden Russia and other revisionist states to change other borders by force. A Russian victory would frighten Russia’s European neighbors, possibly leading to a collapse of European collective security as some countries choose appeasement and others massively rearm. China, too, would conclude that Taiwan cannot rely on sustained U.S. support. Indeed, the ripple effects of U.S. indecision have already begun: In a move that recalls Russia’s illegal annexation of several regions of Ukraine, Venezuela this month claimed more than half of neighboring Guyana as its own. While there are no signs of an impending invasion, it would be naïve to think that other countries aren’t watching closely to see whether Russia’s land grab succeeds. Many analysts have already described these far-reaching security risks. But they pale in comparison to the dire consequences for Ukraine and its inhabitants if Russia wins. It is important for both supporters and opponents of Ukraine aid to know what these consequences would be.
To understand Ukraine’s likely fate if Russia turns the tide, the best place to start is what the Russians actually say. On Dec. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that in his view there is no future for the Ukrainian state. On Dec. 5, he spelled out his intention to “reeducate” the Ukrainian people, curing them of “Russophobia” and “historical falsifications.” On Nov. 12, former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made Russia’s appetites clear: “Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kyiv, and practically everything else is not Ukraine at all.” It is “obvious,” he posted on Telegram, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “usurper,” that the Ukrainian language is only a “mongrel dialect” of Russian, and that Ukraine is “NOT a country, but artificially collected territories.” Other regime propagandists assert that the Ukrainian state is a disease that must be treated and Ukrainians a society that must be “de-wormed.”
More explicitly, Russia’s highly censored state television has, over the past two years, consistently promoted the rape of Ukrainians, the drowning of children, the leveling of cities, the eradication of the Ukrainian elite, and the physical extermination of millions of Ukrainians. For an excellent snapshot of these and other statements, Russian Media Monitor has compiled a must-watch collection of short clips from Russian television, complete with English subtitles. This coordinated campaign is not bluster but a harbinger of what awaits the Ukrainian people. In these remarks, we can see the contours of the atrocities awaiting Ukrainians under a total or nearly total Russian occupation.
We can also project the effect of a Russian victory from the atrocities that are already widespread in the Russian-occupied territories. According to official Ukrainian sources, nearly 2 million Ukrainians have already been removed from their homes and communities in the occupied areas and resettled in Russia, either temporarily or permanently. Other estimates range from 1.6 million to 4.7 million. Russian
children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova said that more than 700,000 Ukrainian children have been taken from Ukraine to Russia since February 2022; nearly 20,000 of these are known to Ukrainian authorities by name. Transferring children from their home country and denying them access to their language and culture is not only an internationally recognized war crime. Such forced assimilation is also defined by the U.N. Convention on Genocide as a genocidal act. It is why the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Lvova-Belova’s arrest.
Russia is not only ridding its occupied regions of Ukrainians but also replacing them with Russian settlers—a tragic continuity with Soviet and Russian imperial practices of systemic deportation, colonization, and Russification. In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where the Russian advance killed tens of thousands of civilians and destroyed 50 percent of the city’s housing stock, a handful of new apartment buildings were recently constructed. Some of that housing is being offered for sale, with Russian carpetbaggers snatching up real estate at bargain prices.
Ukraine’s partly occupied south offers a clear picture of the techniques used by the occupying forces to establish authority. A Human Rights Watch report from July 2022 documents a pattern of torture, disappearances, and arbitrary detention in the region. Citizens endured torture during interrogation, including beatings, electroshocks, and sensory deprivation. Several prisoners died from the torture, and large numbers have simply disappeared. Among the victims were local officials, teachers, representatives of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, NGO activists, and members of Ukraine’s territorial defense. There also is a massive amount of information collected by human rights monitors and journalists about the operation of filtration and detention camps.
Political indoctrination and the militarization of youth are already key characteristics of life under Russian occupation. Political banners and posters promoting Russian patriotism are omnipresent in the occupied regions. New children’s textbooks expunge Ukrainian history and preach hatred for Ukraine’s leadership. The Ukrainian language is being removed from much of the education system and relegated to its colonial status as a quaint dialect representing nothing but a gradually disappearing regional culture soon to be subsumed in the Russified mainstream.
Already, millions of Ukrainians have had their lives destroyed in one way or another by Russia’s monstrous occupation. Were Russia to complete its conquest, it would be a multiple of that number. After almost a decade of war against Russia, Ukrainians are united and highly mobilized in the defense of their country’s borders, democracy, culture, and language, to which many Ukrainian Russian-speakers have switched out of disgust with Moscow’s invasion. Millions of Ukrainians have been enraged and radicalized by Russia’s war crimes and destruction of their towns and homes. Millions of Ukrainians have volunteered to assist the war effort, millions have contributed funds to support the military, and even more have turned to social media to vent and publicly register their rage at Putin and the Russian state.
That would not only make any conquest brutal and bloody. Should Ukraine lose, almost all of Ukrainian society would need to be punished, repressed, silenced, or reeducated if the occupation is to quell resistance and absorb the country into Russia. For this reason, a Russian takeover would be accompanied by mass arrests, long-term detentions, mass deportations into the Russian heartland, filtration camps on a vast scale, and political terror. If a serious insurgency emerges, the level of repression will only widen and deepen.
Adrian Karatnycky is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. From 1993 to 2004, he was president and executive director of Freedom House, during which time he developed programs of assistance to democratic and human rights movements in Belarus, Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine. At Freedom House he devised a range of long-term comparative analytic surveys of democracy and political reform. For twelve years he directed the benchmark survey Freedom in the World and was co-editor of the annual Nations in Transit study of reform in the post-Communist world. He is a frequent contributor to Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, and many other periodicals. He is coauthor of three books and coeditor of eight books on Soviet and post-Soviet themes. He’s been an outstanding voice for the Council on events unfolding in Ukraine.