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Russia must be held responsible for the genocide in Ukraine

Many observers believe that the current war in Ukraine could have been avoided had Russia confronted its troubling past sooner. There is no way to know for sure if this is true, but it remains a fact that no one was ever held accountable for the countless atrocities of the Soviet regime. It is also true that Ukrainians were among the main victims. Millions of Ukrainians perished in the genocidal man-made famine known as Holodomor, which was orchestrated by the Kremlin in the 1930s.

Putin came to power in this culture of impunity and used it to his advantage. Over the past two decades, it has rehabilitated the Soviet past and revived the glorification of Russia’s imperial identity, making it possible to contest Ukraine’s very right to exist. For this reason, it is imperative that Putin and other key members of his regime now face a long overdue settling of scores. But is such a result even possible?

The most obvious path to settling scores is through international justice. Given the the massive scale of crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, it is unclear what would be the best forum for prosecution. International Criminal Court (ICC) investigators are already investigating war crimes in Ukraine, while the UN Human Rights Council has created an independent commission of inquiry. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves began to send Russian soldiers on trial. These efforts will likely lead to war crimes prosecutions, but it may take many years before key verdicts are reached. It is also extremely unlikely that Putin himself will ever find himself in the dock.

With these uncertainties in mind, we have to ask ourselves what real accountability would look like. Holding criminals accountable aims to deter them and others from committing future crimes, foster reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, and promote lasting peace. As Putin’s crimes are rooted in a historic failure to impose accountability, any legal sanction for the invasion of Ukraine would go no further in achieving these goals. Prosecuting war criminals must go hand in hand with efforts to challenge the historical narrative that led to the invasion in the first place. It means confronting Russia’s imperial identity and addressing the toxic notion that Ukrainians have no right to exist as an independent nation.

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If Russia is to be held accountable, the international community must do everything possible to ensure a Ukrainian military victory and the liberation of all occupied Ukrainian lands. Following Russia’s defeat on the battlefield, Ukraine will need to receive credible security guarantees that offer protection equivalent to NATO membership. Similarly, Western leaders should pledge to compel Russia to pay reparations. Above all, the war must end on Ukraine’s terms. Any attempt to push Ukraine into accepting a compromise peace would be an affront to the country’s immense sacrifices and would also run counter to the need for accountability. It is vital that Russia publicly acknowledges its guilt and recognizes the sanctity of Ukrainian sovereignty.

One way to achieve greater accountability is to empower Ukrainians. The international community must work to support Ukrainian society in its efforts to hold Russia accountable. This support should include everything from technical assistance to helping local civil society to systematically gather evidence and document atrocities. Ukraine has a functioning justice system, but it lacks the capacity to deal with the volume of war crimes committed by Russian forces over the past six months. International aid can make a big difference.

Ukraine’s international partners must also contribute to the long quest to identify all victims of the Russian genocide. For the average Ukrainian, anger at Putin can be something of an abstraction. Indeed, while he is the individual most directly responsible for the invasion, he is neither the soldier who pulled the trigger nor the one who threw the bombs that destroyed civilian homes, hospitals and schools. Like genocidaires throughout history, Putin’s intention is to destroy Ukrainian culture, language and national identity, but he is not acting alone. Acknowledging every victim is an important step towards meaningful accountability for the crimes committed against the Ukrainian nation.

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We need to think about how to target Putin’s false historical narratives at their very roots. One way to do this is to recognize, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder has said, that we must more history and less memory. Although the question of the extent to which Russians themselves bear collective responsibility for Putin’s invasion remains open, polls indicate that a clear majority of Russians Support the war. Although the exact numbers remain elusive, many Russians evidently bought into Putin’s views on the story. As Russia becomes an increasingly closed and authoritarian country, what about those of us who want to see accountability from the inside out?

Here we have to think beyond the immediate term. “Cancelling” Russian culture isn’t necessarily the answer, but amplifying Ukrainians and their culture absolutely is. Getting Russians to know their stories is essential, whether through technologies such as VPNs or by supporting Russian investigative journalists who have fled the country but continue their courageous work while based outside of Russia.

Here in the West, we can work to advance public awareness, both of today’s Russian genocide and historic Soviet crimes. This means making sure to document them in history books, teach them in schools, commemorate the victims in public places, and even acknowledge our own complicity in ignoring past events like the famine of the United States. ‘Soviet-era Holodomor in Ukraine.

Putin and his regime must face legal sanctions for the genocidal invasion of Ukraine. But to achieve meaningful accountability, we must also tackle the unrepentant imperialism that allows the dehumanization of Ukrainians and the destruction of entire Ukrainian cities. This will require a long-term approach to historical justice that goes beyond the courtroom and seeks to strengthen all aspects of the Ukrainian state while fundamentally challenging how Russians view their own past.

Danielle Johnson holds a doctorate in politics from Oxford University and specializes in Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.

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Image: Graves of unidentified Ukrainian civilians murdered by Russian soldiers in Bucha, Kyiv region. August 2022. (NurPhoto via Reuters Connect)