'Brotherly’ genocide by your neighbour state

The French president Macron refused to define Russian aggression in Ukraine as genocide. How then can we define the Russian atrocities against their 'little Ukrainian brethren of the village', asks the Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Riabchuk for RaamopRusland. What is this dystopian myth of these 'brotherly nations' that according to Putin form 'one people'? By dehumanizing the Ukrainians as 'nazi's' the Russians fight a war of annihilation.  

marioepol plaatsnaambord Even before the fall of Mariupol the Russians replaced the Ukrainian name shield by a Russian one (picture twitter)

by Mykola Riabchuk

Back in April, president Emmanuel Macron provoked strong indignation with many Ukrainians when he refused to qualify the Russian misdeeds in Ukraine as 'genocide' – which neither the American nor Polish presidents, nor the British prime-minister hesitated to do. For Ukrainians who not only witness but also experience the Russian atrocities in real time, 'genocide' might be the only term strong enough to reflect the scale of their suffering and devastation.

From a purely legal point of view, the term indeed might be debatable since its strict application requires not only proof of large-scale extermination of a significant group of people on the base of their ethnicity, race or religion. It requires also proof of purposeful intent, of genocidal premeditation, which usually is very difficult, almost impossible to obtain. Historians still struggle to prove that Stalin who starved to death five million Ukrainians in his 1932-33 man-made famine, annihilated them as members of a particular ethnic group rather than 'merely' peasants who resisted the forced collectivization of agriculture. (Back in the 1940s, the Soviets wisely removed the reference to 'social groups' from Rafael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, adopted by the UN).

By the same token, one may argue that Putin exterminates not all Ukrainians (as an ethnic group) but only those whom he arbitrarily qualifies as 'Nazis'. Those who abandon their Ukrainian identity and accept Putin’s view that they are 'one people' with the Russians, will be spared from slaying and even promoted as exemplary ‘Little Russians’, as the Russians derogatory designate the Ukrainians.

Indeed, Jews did not have that option in the Third Reich, as they were to be slaughtered without exception, regardless of their acceptance of German identity instead of Jewish. The 'final solution' of the Ukrainian question is thus framed not in ethnic but in quasi-ideological terms: de-Ukrainization of Ukraine is presented as 'de-Nazification'.

While in practical terms it is obvious that Putin wants to wipe out Ukrainians as a nation whose existence and whose very name he systemically denies, in legal terms he pretends to 'merely' exterminate the proverbial 'fascists'. He doesn't care that the vast majority of the Ukrainians are attached to their Ukrainian civic identity and therefore have to be subjected to Putin’s ‘de-Nazification’. Not all of them are doomed to annihilation. Some can survive as loyal collaborators, and many more can be ‘re-educated’, like the Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps.

Crime of agression

Philip Sands, the renowned British lawyer who advises the Ukrainian government on the investigation of Russian war crimes, agrees that 'legally proving genocide is very difficult' and suggests 'to focus on the crime of aggression that the judges in Nuremberg defined as the supreme crime [because] if the war had not started and did not continue there would be no war crimes and crimes against humanity'.

In Sands' view, it is absolutely clear that we can speak of a Russian 'crime of aggression'. This crime was condemned in a UN resolution and affirmed by the International Court of Justice that demanded of Russia to stop the invasion and leave the territory of Ukraine.

According to Sands, suing Russia for the 'crime of aggression' (one of four international crimes defined at Nuremberg in 1945) has another advantage: 'Broadly speaking it is the only possibility to target the top in Moscow, to sue president Putin and foreign secretary Lavrov, and to persecute the minister of defense and the secret services and so on and so forth.'

It were in all probabibilty not these legal subtleties that constrained Macron from defining the Russian atrocities in Ukraine as genocide but, rather, his old and perhaps naïve belief in his ‘special relation’ with Putin and the hope for a possibility for a ‘dialogue’. 'I want to continue trying, as much as I can, to stop this war and rebuild peace', Macron said. 'I am not sure that rhetorical escalation serves that cause.'

The desire to keep the door open regardless of any crimes the Kremlin commits is deplorable but understandable, as long as it is meant in good faith rather than as a way of traditional opportunism and the desire to sit on two chairs. But Macron managed to add insult to injury when attempting to justify his rhetoric of restrainment with an even more dubious argument: 'I would be careful tu use such terms today because these two peoples [Russians and Ukrainians] are brothers.'

Inappropriate metaphor

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its disappointment with Macron’s words and called the metaphor inappropriate as these so called ‘brothers’ kill Ukrainian children, shoot civilians, rape women and destroy everything on Ukraine’s land. 'Even your worst enemies don't commit these atrocities against peaceful people,' the MFA spokesman stipulated. Some commentators riposted, in a less diplomatic way, that not the Ukrainians are the 'brothers' of the Russians, but rather the hordes of Genghis Khan. President Zelensky defined the Russo-Ukrainian 'brotherhood' with the biblical metaphor of Cain and Abel. 

The persistence of the Soviet propagandistic cliché that infiltrated people’s minds far beyond the late Soviet Union and today’s 'Russian World', can be hardly explained unless we take into account the power of 'imperial knowledge' – the set of discursive representations of imperial history and ethnology that promotes and solidifies its dominance over a subjugated people. During three centuries this knowledge was institutionalized internationally – in academia, textbooks and popular culture; it became, indeed, a common wisdom, unquestionable and unproblematic.

In this point of view Ukrainians are merely an ethnic subgroup of Russians, and Ukrainian history was just a regional sideshow of the eternal, 'thousand-years-old' Russia. To prove this the linguistic, cultural and religious affinity of Ukrainians and Russians was overemphasized while important, in some cases crucial, differences were ignored - in the first place the fact that the two nations developed fundamentally different political cultures, as Ukrainians well into the 18th century used to live in the totally different political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Today, in the era of nation-states and the preponderance of civic identity, appeals to affinity, let alone political unity, based on the antiquated values of unreformed Orthodox Christianity, look ridiculous.

Older brother

Other than Putin claims, it were not the Soviets who invented the Ukrainian nation – they simply could not ignore the powerful national liberation movement of 1917-1920 that resulted in the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic. The Soviets actually won the civil war against the monarchist 'white armies' (who staunchly denied Ukraine’s existence), because they had to make concessions to all the 'ethnicities' in post-revolutionary Russia and lured their leftist political spectre to their side.

oekraine russ oorlogsmisdadenThousands of civilians were killed by Russian troops in the outskirts of Kyiv

As they could not deny the existence of the Ukrainian nation as their monarchist predecessors did, they on the one hand had to invent the metaphor of 'brotherhood' that promoted Russo-Ukrainian affinity, but on the other hand created a strong hierarchy within this 'family', by endowing the Russians with the role of the 'older brother' and, therefore, with political and cultural supremacy.

This myth was deeply internalized by many Ukrainians in Soviet times but it was profoundly shattered in 2014, after the Russian Anschluss of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas. Today, after the Russian atrocities in Ukraine were broadly exposed, it totally dissipated. The question, however, remains to be answered how the Russians themselves can commit all these heinous crimes while at the same time believing that the Ukrainians are a 'brotherly nation' or, as Putin articulates it, 'one people' with the Russians.

Peculiar dialectic

By all the evidence, a peculiar dialectic is here in play: Russians still love Ukrainians as 'younger brothers', as their cousins from the village, the 'wonderful Slavonic people' (in the words of the Russian ultranationalist philosopher and warmonger Alexander Dugin) who belong to us and actually 'are us'. The only problem is that these 'brotherly' Ukrainians exist only in their imperial imagination while in reality during the war they encounter an absolutely different kind of people, with different values and political views, who do not want to have anything in common with these self-proclaimed 'brothers'. So in their dialectic these Ukrainians cannot be 'true' Ukrainians, they must be 'Nazi's' and should be forcibly de-Nazified, i.e., stripped of their 'wrong' Ukrainian identity – 're-educated', in Moscow's official words, or otherwise exterminated.

And this is what we see now: it is not Ukrainians that the Russians kill, torture and harass. They fight Nazi's, sub-humans, Banderites [the members of a militant far-right nationalist group, active in Western Ukraine in the 1930-40s - ed.]. This is a pathological deviation from the 'true Russianness' that should be eliminated since it threatens the healthy organism of the 'right Ukrainians'.

These 'wrong Ukrainians' are worse than enemies – like Americans or Brits or Poles. They are traitors, and in Putin’s view that is far worse – as he long ago formulated it in a conversation with journalist Aleksey Venediktov [editor-in-chief of the now forbidden radiostation Ekho Moskvy - ed.]: 'People who are against me come in two types: enemies and traitors. Enemies are a normal phenomenon. You fight them, then you make peace, then you become partners, and later on you make war with them again.  Every war ends in peace and your enemy of yesterday becomes your partner. But traitors are people who sided with you, supported you wholeheartedly and then, when you did something wrong, they switch sides. And stab you in the back. With traitors no conversation is possible.'

For traitors, in Putin's view, there are no rules or laws of war: they can be poisoned with polonium or Novichok, assassinated in the streets in broad daylight, shelled indiscriminately with rockets and tortured with a medieval, genuinely sadistic zeal. This is the reverse side of the 'brotherhood', the perverse love-turned-hatred, so the Ukrainians have little choice: either to become brothers with their rapists and murderers, or to fight till the end for something more valuable than the mythical 'brotherhood', something they call freedom and dignity.

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