A historian must object. The notion of “genocide” is not a good reference point here. Even a wide definition does not fit this case, because there is no policy or systematic practice of killing the inhabitants of the breakaway areas merely due to their being who they are in some ethnic or national sense – however defined or ascribed – which is the essential, bare minimum condition of the term. In fact, in the same breath the Russian president himself has also warned that the concept should not be inflated.
Yet there is no reason to simply move on either. Even if genocide is not what is happening, Kiev’s policies have been harsh, even punitive beyond what may be required or perhaps justified by war. As the NGO International Crisis Group has summed up this approach, it “has too often treated the security and prosperity of its citizens from Donbass as mutually exclusive with the interests of Ukraine as a whole.” Yet Western media has generally failed to criticize the Ukrainian authorities’ actions.
With varying intensity, the conflict between the Ukrainian government and two separatist rebel areas in the Donbass region in the east of the country – together about 40,000 square kilometers – is a rebellion with local roots that has received significant Russian support. The conflict has defied solution by force: Ukraine cannot retake the areas with its military, but the rebels are too weak to force Kiev to stop fighting.
There is a roadmap for a peaceful settlement which consists of the 2015 Minsk II agreement together with the so-called Steinmeier Formula, named after the former foreign minister of Germany. But this compromise, correctly identified as the “best route to recovery” by the International Crisis Group, has not been implemented, largely due to resistance from Kiev which sees this package as unfavorable and unfair, and demands adjustments.
After an initial phase of movement which ended in early 2015, the fighting, interspersed with fragile ceasefires, has been stuck in a stalemate. The rebel areas have consolidated into quasi-statelets without international recognition, their forces and those of Kiev facing off across a mostly static front line of over 400km. Generally reduced to a slow, bloody drip, violence has taken obvious and indirect forms: shelling, sniping, and occasional raiding as well as techniques of blockade.
The total number of casualties – about 14,000 at this point – has been substantial if relatively low by comparison with other conflicts. In addition, several million have been displaced or need humanitarian assistance. Of those killed, a substantial minority have been civilians. Between mid-April 2014 and the end of 2021, the UN’s Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights has counted almost 3,400 civilian casualties – a figure likely to be conservative.
Life for those six million Ukrainians living close to the frontline, on either side, tends to be especially hard. In 2018, almost a sixth of them were categorized as “food-insecure;” unemployment and impoverishment and the threat of abuse by “both Ukrainian security services and Kremlin-backed rebels” were rife, not to speak of the effects of shelling and mines.
The single most repulsive feature of this conflict has been war crimes. In 2015 already, a detailed Amnesty International report found that, with both sides of the conflict, severe abuses – such as abductions, brutal beatings, electric shocks, or systematic sleep deprivation – were “all too common.” One year later, in 2016, Human Rights Watch came to similar conclusions. Both government and rebel forces were holding “civilians in prolonged, arbitrary detention,” sometimes in combination with “enforced disappearances” when “the authorities in question refused to acknowledge the detention of the person or refused to provide any information on their whereabouts or fate.” Moreover, “most of those detained suffered torture or other forms of ill-treatment.”
Separately, the rebels have been accused of torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. The brutalities of Ukrainian government forces have sometimes involved foreign volunteers and mercenaries from the West. The case of Craig Lang, an American accused of murder in the US and, together with six other US citizens under investigation by American authorities for possible war crimes, including torture and killings, in Ukraine may be especially bad. It is certainly not the only one, and there is every reason to believe that those who commit crimes while fighting for Kiev have a good chance of escaping investigation or punishment in the West. The Ukrainian authorities, in any case, robustly restrict any investigations of foreigners to those fighting for the separatists.
Last year, the then-prosecutor of the International Criminal Court concluded a preliminary investigation by finding a “reasonable basis to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity” had occurred so that a full investigation was required, even if subsequently delayed due the ICC’s budgetary constraints.
Kiev’s clear bias in investigating war crimes is not only unjust. It also implies an underlying culture of impunity – deliberately or not, the Ukrainian authorities are signaling that there is one standard for crimes committed by the enemy and another one for those by their own forces. This may not be unusual in war, but it is still wrong. Especially if you consider that Kiev claims to still represent the interests of the population in the breakaway statelets. Because if they are and remain Ukrainian citizens, then the Ukrainian state owes them special protection from abuse, in particular by its own forces.
In practice, however, there is a clear tendency to treat the inhabitants of the rebel areas as a lesser and worse sort of citizen. There is a small, nasty lexicon of deeply disparaging, sometimes dehumanizing terms applied to them, and they need not be repeated here. Anyone whose Ukrainian is good enough to read the country’s social media can explore them with ease. What is worse is that even members of the cultural and political elite have sometimes used this language, setting a bad example.
Kiev has long stopped funding government services in the separatist regions. That may have been inevitable. But the Ukrainian government also shows no interest in somehow mitigating this fact to protect the civilian population there. Among the most lasting and demonstrative mistreatments of the inhabitants of the breakaway areas is the way Kiev has handled pensions for the aged. With their livelihood still dependent on the Ukrainian state but no longer dispensed in their home locations, they have to regularly cross the front line to collect it, often under extremely difficult conditions.
Intermittently, this situation has been made worse by additional restrictions due to Covid. Of course, the Ukrainian government has to fight the pandemic. Yet, in reality, its measures have not accommodated the needs of these especially vulnerable citizens, pushing “them into poverty,” as Human Rights Watch has pointed out. This effect has been reinforced by trade restrictions that, in effect, promote smuggling and drive up prices.
Finally, there is shelling, small-arms fire, and mines. As the OSCE has found, both sides have killed civilians by such weapons. Between the beginning of 2017 and mid-September of 2020, the organization confirmed 946 such cases. While 280 of these deaths occurred on government-controlled territory, 657 of the victims died in rebel-controlled areas. These figures are likely to be an under-count, and where people died does not necessarily indicate who is responsible for their death. Nonetheless, these numbers clearly indicate that government forces have taken a heavy toll.
Once this conflict is over, when biases will slowly recede and ever more information emerge, facile narratives of white hats and black hats, so fashionable with some popular Western commentators, will face a withering reality test and crumble. There is no genocide. But there are war crimes and manifold brutalities and abuses, also on Kiev’s side. And precisely because Ukraine is now aligned with the West, Western media ought to be serious about their special responsibility not to turn a blind eye.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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