Amid the bloodshed from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s a question that’s increasingly being raised: Is this genocide?
Through April 1, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had confirmed that 1,325 civilians had been killed in Ukraine and 2,017 had been injured. However, even the U.N. office that released those numbers cautioned that “the actual figures are considerably higher” and may never be fully counted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used the word “genocide” during a visit to Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where atrocities committed on civilians were discovered after a Russian retreat.
Zelenskyy also asked the United Nations Security Council to establish a tribunal similar to the one used to prosecute the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust, the mass slaughter that originally led to the creation of the term “genocide.”
The White House has been more cautious. When President Joe Biden was asked April 4 whether he believed that Russia’s actions in Ukraine amounted to genocide, he said, “No, I think it is a war crime.” And national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide,” although he promised to “continue to monitor” the situation. On the April 10 edition of ABC’s “This Week,” Sullivan reiterated that “we haven’t yet reached a determination on genocide.”
The term “genocide” is powerful because it refers to the apex of brutality — an attempt to wipe out an ethnic group.
And because of the word’s power, it has been subject to much debate over whether certain actions do or don’t qualify. Anti-vaccination advocates used it to falsely claim vaccine distribution amounted to genocide. Russia has sought to justify its invasion of Ukraine by alleging genocide against Russian-speaking citizens in the Donbas region; this argument has gained essentially no support in the international community, and PolitiFact has rated it False.
Experts we contacted expressed universal revulsion at what Russia is doing in Ukraine and agreed that Russia has likely committed war crimes. But they were more cautious about whether Russia’s actions qualify as genocide.
“Obviously, the term is emotional,” said Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University. “If I were Ukrainian, I might feel differently. And in time we may conclude that the Russians do intend to commit genocide. But we should note that many, many atrocities can be committed without those acts rising to the level of genocide.”
What is the definition of genocide?
There is an official definition of genocide, written in 1948 following negotiations led by the United Nations: Genocide means killing, causing bodily harm, preventing births, or forcing the transferral of children “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
However, while this is the definition used in legal and other official proceedings, “that does not mean that everyone accepts it or uses it,” said Richard Breitman, an emeritus professor at American University and former editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
For instance, the definition does not explicitly include gender, political groups, economic groups, or LGTBQ persons, said Anthony Clark Arend, government and foreign service professor at Georgetown University.
In addition, the definition gives no guidance on absolute numbers or percentages required to qualify as genocide.
Rulings by the World Court and its affiliates have expanded the definition of genocide incrementally since the immediate post-World War II era.
In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set a precedent by including rape as a means of perpetrating genocide, said Sara E. Brown, executive director of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education.
And in 2007, the World Court classified the killing of 7,000 men and boys in Srebrenica during the attack on Bosnia-Herzegovina as genocide. While the justices broadly cleared Serbia of charges of genocide during the Balkan War, they did find that Serbia failed to act to prevent the more limited instance of genocide in Srebrenica. This demonstrated that genocide-related charges can be upheld in specific events even if not in an entire war.
War crimes, either consisting of individual incidents or the higher policies that enabled them, are defined under the law of armed conflict. In Ukraine, the most commonly cited war crimes allegations against Russia are the deliberate targeting of civilians.
“War crimes must by definition be perpetrated at a time of war,” said Omer Bartov, a Brown University historian and author of several books on genocide. “Genocide does not require that.”
What genocide does require is intent.
Legally demonstrating intent can be challenging, Brown said, “but if there is proof of an overarching strategy that targets people based upon a perceived religious, ethnic, national, or racial identity, then it could be genocide under the internationally agreed-upon definition.”
Is there an official list of past genocides?
There is no official list, although historians say there is wide agreement about some examples while more debate exists about others. Politics can sometimes play a role in what is called genocide.
Bartov said the most commonly accepted genocides were against the Herero and Nama, two Indigenous peoples in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia) in 1904; against Armenians in World War I; the Holocaust; the 1975-76 genocide in Kampuchea (Cambodia); the 1992-95 genocide in Bosnia (limited, officially, to Srebrenica); and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A variety of western nations have pushed for the genocide label to be placed on killings and other attacks by Myanmar of its Rohingya minority in 2017 and on China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority.
In the more contested category, experts said, are actions by the Soviet Union under Stalin, including the Holodomor, which was a famine in Ukraine in 1931 and 1932; in the secessionist Nigerian state of Biafra in the late 1960s; and in the Darfur region of Sudan in the early 21st century.
What’s the case for genocide right now in Ukraine?
One of the strongest U.S. articulations of calling Russia’s actions genocide is a column in The Washington Post by Eugene Finkel, an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.” Finkel, a descendant of Holocaust survivors who was born in Ukraine, argues that “genocide is unfolding before our eyes.”
He writes that because genocide does not require large numbers of victims, Russian actions in places like Bucha start to make the case that genocide is occurring. The crucial element of intent, he writes, may now be coming into clearer focus, including the publication of an article titled “What should Russia do with Ukraine,” published on April 3 by the Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti.
The article, he writes, “outlines a clear plan to destroy Ukrainians and Ukraine itself. After a Russian victory, it argues, Ukraine ‘is impossible as a nation state,’ and its very name ‘likely cannot be retained.’ The Ukrainian nationalist elite ‘need to be liquidated; its reeducation is impossible.’ But a ‘substantial part of the populace’ is ‘also guilty’ and would require ‘reeducation’ and ‘ideological repressions’ lasting ‘at least a generation’ and would ‘inevitably mean de-Ukrainization.’”
Ultimately, Finkel writes, “the combination of official statements denying Ukraine and Ukrainians the right to exist, and mounting evidence of deliberate, large-scale targeting of Ukrainian civilians, leaves little room for doubt. The threshold from war crimes to genocide has been crossed.”
Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, agreed in a recent column that the RIA Novosti article is “a genocide handbook” for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In an interview, Bartov said the RIA Novosti article could be a turning point on the question of intent. “This is literally a call to extinguish Ukraine and Ukrainian national existence as such, and likely conforms to the definition of genocide,” Bartov said.
What are the reasons for caution about calling Russia’s actions genocide right now?
We found wide agreement among experts that Russia is carrying out the intentional mass murder of civilians in Ukraine, including at hospitals, schools, residential areas, and refugee exit points, as well as executions of Ukrainians in their custody. And because the Russian actions in Ukraine do not appear to be simply “collateral damage” of war, they “certainly seem to me to be war crimes and should be prosecuted as such,” said David Silbey, a Cornell University historian.
However, most of the experts said they are more cautious about labeling Russia’s actions genocide, at least for now.
“I tend to think the term genocide should be confined to a fairly limited number of extreme events, defined by the commitment of resources and efforts over a sustained period of time,” Silbey said. What he sees happening in Ukraine is “the kind of barbaric violence against civilians that is all too common in history, whether it be the Germans at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 or by the Americans at My Lai in 1968.”
Most experts said additional time and documentation could shift the conclusion in the direction of declaring a genocide.
“If we continue to get evidence that Russian forces are killing Ukrainians indiscriminately with the goal of reducing the ethnic Ukrainian population, or of capturing and deporting Ukrainians to clear the way for Russian settlers, then there will be a strong case for genocide,” Breitman said. “I don’t think we are there yet. But I understand why Zelenskyy uses the term. Events are moving in that direction, and he speaks out to try to prevent genocide.”
Raz Segal, an associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University, said there’s a risk of focusing too closely on whether Russian actions amount to genocide: The semantic debate could draw attention away from the urgent suffering in Ukraine.
“The question, ‘Is this or is this not genocide?’ traps us within a scholarly and political discourse that is part of the problem,” Segal said. “We should stop treating the concept of genocide as if it is sacred, and begin thinking in different ways about discussing, teaching, and engaging in struggle against modern mass violence.”