Updated: Oct 7
Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues to intensify as bombs increasingly hit city centres, destroying apartment buildings, theatres, and hospitals and killing civilians while the world watches. The brutal actions of the Russian army may seem inconceivable in the context of international norms but are not unimaginable for those who have actually been listening to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Putin has long made his convictions regarding Ukraine known, but few took him at his word. Driven by nostalgia for the Russian Empire as well as the USSR, Putin has made it clear that he seeks to destroy Ukraine as an independent state.
Putin was more or less satisfied when the Kremlin-controllable common criminal Victor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s president. He never forgave Ukrainians for driving Yanukovych from office during their Maidan revolution eight years ago, and retaliated by annexing Crimea and beginning Russia’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Since that time, Russian TV has kept up a drumbeat of hate and fear, dehumanizing Ukrainians and demonizing them as fascists and neo-Nazis. It has been Russian state policy to spread misinformation, priming the Russian public to root for, or at least accept, genocidal acts against the citizens of a peaceful, neighbouring state. The Russian media has for eight years told the Russian public that Ukrainians—particularly those who assert Ukraine’s right to independence—are evil and the enemy.
The Russian soldiers who are firing missiles at Ukrainian cities today are part of that audience, which has been fed a steady diet of hate. Addressing the Russian people, President Putin continues to tell his citizens that Ukraine is led by drug-addled Nazis—a particularly ugly, cynical lie given that the Ukraine’s democratically elected President Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust. To his list of dangers that Ukrainians pose he has added the threat of a nuclear Ukraine, even though Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons when it became independent in exchange for what have turned out to be meaningless security guarantees, including from Russia. Western pundits have wasted too many words discussing whether Ukraine's aspiration to belong to NATO triggered the Russian president. The possibility of NATO membership was not on the table when Putin invaded Ukraine eight years ago.
The demonization of Ukrainians as a prelude to genocide has a precedent. Under the tsars, Ukrainian efforts for freedom were suppressed, including bans on the use of the Ukrainian language. In the lead up to the Holodomor, the Soviet famine of 1932-33 in which millions of Ukrainians were starved to death, Soviet propaganda paved the way, casting the Ukrainian peasant farmers as kulaks, describing them as parasites and vermin and as a class that deserved and needed to be exterminated. Worth noting is that Rafael Lemkin, the lawyer who developed the concept of genocide as well as the term, considered the Holodomor part of a greater genocidal attack on Ukraine and Ukrainians.
The Holodomor also provides a precedent for the Kremlin lies and disinformation of the past weeks. Over the past weeks, Russian TV has insisted that Russian troops are fighting only in Donbas. There is no mention that Russia is bombing Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities, or of civilian deaths; Russian media also claims that the Russian army is fighting irregular formations of nationalists and not the Ukrainian army. These lies intend to hide the truth of the Kremlin’s actions, just as Soviet authorities in 1932-33 refused international offers of food aid, claiming that people were not starving. They continued to deny the Holodomor for more than 50 years. It took the fall of the USSR, when researchers finally gained access to archives, to prove what eyewitnesses and survivors had insisted upon—that the Kremlin had engaged in the intentional starvation of the Ukrainian countryside.
The intelligence sources that correctly predicted today’s onslaught also warned that the Kremlin has already prepared arrest and kill lists of the Ukrainians most likely to lead resistance to the imposition of Kremlin rule. A number of mayors, journalists, and activists in Ukraine have already been kidnapped.
In the 1990s, I lived in Ukraine and worked with civic organisations, and I fear now for the people I know who have devoted their lives to building civil society in their country. They are likely to be targeted for their commitment to the development of a democratic Ukraine. Today, as Executive Director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (a project of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, which researches and educates about the genocidal famine in 1932-33), I fear for the Ukrainian academics I know. In Ukraine, historians are free to carry out their research. In Russia, historians who disagree with the Kremlin face persecution and imprisonment. Scholars engaged in the study of Ukrainian history and culture, as distinct from Russian, will certainly be targeted.
Putin has made his intentions in Ukraine known—he is bent on destroying Ukrainians who assert their distinctiveness and who are willing to fight to preserve Ukraine as a sovereign state. Unlike during the Holodomor, when journalists were prevented from travelling to Ukraine to report on the suffering, today we are witnessing events in Ukraine in real time. We have no excuse. We know. The question is whether the world is willing to do what it takes to stop the Russian President who has already started down the path of genocide.
Marta Baziuk is Executive Director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta). She has more than 25 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector, in Ukraine and North America.