Russia’s threatening rhetoric on Ukraine intensifies

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RIGA, Latvia — After a month of fighting, the architects of Moscow’s war against Ukraine have had to explain to the Russians why kyiv did not fall. That’s when the most threatening rhetoric began.

On state television, a military analyst doubled down on Russia’s need to win and called for concentration camps for Ukrainians opposed to the invasion.

Two days later, the head of the parliament’s lower house defense committee said it would take 30 to 40 years to “re-educate” Ukrainians.

And in a talk show, the editor of the English-language television news channel RT called the Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country “collective madness”.

“It is not by chance that we call them Nazis,” said Margarita Simonyan, who also heads the Kremlin-backed media group that runs the Sputnik and RIA Novosti news agencies. “What makes you a Nazi is your bestial nature, your bestial hatred and your bestial willingness to gouge out children’s eyes on the basis of nationality.”

Russia’s astonishing evolution towards genocidal discourse has been swift and transparent. Moscow officials have amped up warnings that Russia is fighting for its survival. Experts have condemned the peace talks and scorned the withdrawal of troops from Kyiv and surrounding areas.

The shift, signaling a brutal occupation, appeared deliberate and coordinated in a country where detailed Kremlin orders on messaging are routinely passed on to state media.

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Eugene Finkel, a genocide expert at Johns Hopkins University in Bologna, Italy, said the rhetoric is not just that of “a few diehard crazies” spouting out. It comes from prominent government officials, appearing in the press, heard on state television – and is “clearly genocidal”.

“They talk about destroying Ukrainians as a group, Ukraine as a state and as an identity community,” Finkel said. “The argument is that we’re going to destroy this national community as it exists and create something new that we love instead, no matter how many people we kill in the process.”

At the end of March, the head of the Russian investigative commission launched an investigation into whether Ukrainian students’ textbooks “targeted children with hatred of Russia and the Russian language” and “distorted history”. There is already evidence, Finkel noted, of Russian soldiers in Ukraine walking through libraries and schools and destroying books in Ukrainian or those about the country’s history and the struggle for independence.

“I think there is a clear indication that [the Russians] deliberately target anything and everyone associated with Ukrainians as a national identity,” he said.

The odds that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man with no history of reversing course when cornered, will recede as his army’s effort falters have never been great, and US officials have cast doubt Russia’s seriousness about the peace talks. Yet after Moscow’s failure to take kyiv, the shift to a harder line in state media suggests the Kremlin is preparing the population for a tough and potentially long fight in eastern Ukraine that could see even more destruction and loss.

It also hints at a punitive path should Russia win: potentially dividing Ukraine, crushing its military and civilian society, and occupying it for years.

A former Kremlin adviser, Sergei Karaganov, said the country would remain as a rump state – or maybe nothing at all – after Moscow is over. Russia, he said in an interview with the New Statesman, “cannot afford to lose”.

The threat of Nazism is one of the Kremlin’s most brazen themes. Last week, RIA Novosti published an important opinion piece by expert Timofei Sergeitsev, a staunch supporter of Putin, who called for the liquidation of the entire Ukrainian elite, the division of the country, the destruction of its sovereignty and even the abolition of its name.

“Denazification will inevitably be de-Ukrainization,” Sergeitsev wrote, necessitating years of ideological repression and harsh political, cultural and educational censorship. Ordinary Ukrainians were accomplices and had to undergo the “inevitable trials of a just war” before submitting completely to Russian power “as a historical lesson and expiation of their guilt”.

Others quickly piled up. Former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is now Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, wrote on Telegram that “Ukrainism, fueled by anti-Russian poison and consuming lies about its identity, is a big fake”.

Ruth Deyermond, a Russia scholar in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said such arguments are “difficult to read other than as justification for the massacres. It is extremely disturbing language and clearly has genocidal overtones. It’s not that they, the Ukrainians, have a Führer or a political ideology or a Nazi system. They’re just Nazis.

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In a provincial town in central Russia, a young woman named Valeriya recently spoke about how isolated she felt as calls to “fight the Nazis” grew. Valeriya, who declined to give her full name or where she lives for security reasons, said her colleagues viewed her with suspicion because she had a Ukrainian boyfriend and opposed the invasion. They asked her to say which side she was on.

“They tell me: ‘You don’t know the reality. There are fascists, and we have to get rid of them,” she said.

She has started seeing social media posts supporting the genocide and fears the sentiment is escalating.

“In our country, we were brought up with the idea that we had to fight the Nazis,” Valeriya said. “If state television continues to call for the continuation of the war and the killing of the last Ukrainian, then maybe ordinary people will start to believe it and many, many people will think that is what we should do.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday that Russia was carrying out mass deportations. “Hundreds of thousands of people have already been deported,” he told the Lithuanian parliament during a virtual address. “They are placed in special filtration camps. Their documents are taken away from them. They are interrogated and humiliated. The number of dead is unknown.

Tass news agency reported last week that Russian officials said 674,000 Ukrainians had been moved to Russia – voluntarily, they claimed. Accusations by Ukrainian officials over their treatment have been difficult to verify.

With the redeployment of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, the rhetoric is set to intensify further.

In great danger to Ukraine and Russia, Putin signals grim endgame

Less than two weeks before the invasion, Putin used a crude reference to express his determination to force kyiv to accept Russia’s terms of peaceful coexistence: “Like it or not, put up with it, my beauty”, a term associated with rape for many. Russians. Ukraine’s resistance has only soured the Kremlin’s mood.

Yet Finkel fears that a Russian victory will not only destroy Ukraine, but upend the post-World War II world order.

“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think it’s going to be a pretty scary world,” he said. “For Russia, this is a test of the idea that might is good – and we have the power, so we can do whatever we want.”

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