Trigger warning: this articles deals with the topics of war crimes and death.
In the space of just five weeks, Russia has become a nation in denial.
Facing heavy losses in Ukraine, state TV channels tell citizens that the invasion is simply a “special military operation” and that it is all going to plan.
Army chiefs use public briefings to reel off the number of “nationalist fighters” they have supposedly killed, but stay silent on the deaths of tens of thousands of their own troops.
Meanwhile, top Moscow politicians refuse to take responsibility for starting the war, blaming “Nazis,” Americans, and anyone but themselves.
Now though, there is a new addition to the list of things Russia is denying — genocide.
Beset by defeats and fierce resistance, Vladimir Putin’s forces have been beating a hasty retreat back from the suburbs around the capital, Kyiv. The scene left in their wake is one of devastation.
In Bucha, a city occupied since the early days of the conflict and only retaken by Ukrainian forces over the weekend, the bodies of hundreds of civilians have been discovered lying in the streets and dumped unceremoniously into freshly-dug trenches.
Many have their hands bound with ribbons of white cloth which, one local told Reuters, they had been ordered to wear on their arms to mark them out to Russian soldiers. Some were killed by gunshots to the head, while a number have gunpowder burns on their faces, indicating they were executed at close range. Russian commanders stand accused of ordering the killings of military-age males in what could prove to be one of the most shocking episodes of the war so far.
At the same time, Putin’s top brass appears to be continuing with an indiscriminate bombing campaign designed to pound besieged cities into submission.
In the Eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol, a theatre where thousands of families were sheltering was reduced to rubble in an airstrike, despite the word ‘children’ being marked on the ground and visible from above. As many as 300 people are believed to have died.
Mariupol was cut off from the rest of the country shortly after the beginning of the invasion, and supplies of food, medicine and water quickly began to run out. Apartment buildings were also disconnected from heating as temperatures plummeted below freezing, forcing locals to scrape together what provisions they had and huddle in basements to keep safe and stave off the cold. Those who ventured outside faced an onslaught from above, with at least one group cooking on a stove killed instantly by shelling.
Other stories of rapes, murders and robberies have shocked the world and led to calls for more sanctions against Russia, including cutting off imports of oil and gas. A number of European nations, including Germany, have previously resisted taking this step, fearing a sharp recession. However, with evidence of war crimes now blindingly apparent, both the EU and the US have stepped up their approach.
Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of perpetrating a “genocide,” saying the country’s soldiers “treated people worse than animals.” Others have pointed to growing anti-Ukrainian rhetoric on Russian state media as evidence that a campaign of ethnic cleansing could be underway. While Putin once talked of liberating the brotherly nation from a supposed cabal of “neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts,” widespread resistance to his forces has led to a shift in the narrative.
One pro-Kremlin pundit, Timofei Sergeitsev, wrote in an article for state media earlier this week that “besides the elite, a significant proportion of the public are accomplices to Nazism,” and that “the hardships of war are the only fair punishment for them.” The more determined Ukrainians are to defend their homeland, the more Moscow insists that they must be fascists while presenting no evidence to support this sweeping generalisation.
Asked on Monday whether he supported the accusation of genocide, US President Joe Biden refused to use the term, but instead branded Putin “a war criminal.” Russia has unsurprisingly rejected the allegations outright, and has gone into overdrive in an effort to discredit it. Moscow’s Ministry of Defense insists the murdered civilians in Bucha appeared only after its troops left, denying all responsibility and accusing Ukrainian “nationalists” of the killings.
Meanwhile, broadcasters have thrown anything they can at the claims — from alleging the victims were played by crisis actors to saying the bodies were brought in from elsewhere. However, satellite imagery obtained by The New York Times appears to show corpses laying in the same positions for weeks during the occupation, refuting Moscow’s official version of the story.
War crimes have been a tragic and grisly feature of almost every conflict that has played out in recent years. Poorly-disciplined soldiers in the heat of battle go rogue, loot, maim and kill, or so the logic goes.
Even Ukrainian armed forces have been accused of doing so, with one video appearing to show its servicemen shooting Russian captives in the legs. Instead of denying it, Kyiv condemned the clip and ordered an immediate investigation into its veracity and the circumstances behind the incident.
However, many experts believe that Moscow is actively choosing to target civilians because it is increasingly frustrated by its ability to conquer ground. Dr Natasha Kuhrt, a War Studies lecturer at King’s College London, told The Latch that despite the size of its arsenal, Russia’s equipment is outdated and coming up against an enemy it underestimated.
“The aim is now to punish the Ukrainians themselves,” she says.
“We’re going to see more war crimes for sure, and we know that’s part of Russia’s modus operandi.”
For those who have followed the country’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War, the harrowing scenes of murdered civilians are grimly familiar.
One UN report found that Russia was responsible for indiscriminate bombings of residential areas, including refugee camps, with no regard for civilian life and no clear military objective. However, despite international condemnation, little was done to hold the Kremlin accountable for tens of thousands of deaths.
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