On Tuesday, President Joe Biden made a striking declaration: Russia is committing “genocide” in Ukraine.
“It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian,” he told reporters. “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies [as genocide], but it sure seems that way to me.”
Biden’s assessment, grounded in recently discovered horrors like the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha, is by far the most high-profile assessment to date that Russia is committing genocide. While a handful of experts on war crimes have come to the same conclusion as the president, most experts and international authorities are still unsure.
“I don’t know yet, is the honest answer. [But] it’s not a crazy question to be asking,” says Rebecca Hamilton, an expert on the law of war at American University. “I’m not going to be surprised if, in time, evidence comes out and we can put together a picture that there is genocide.”
It’s easy to see this as a mere argument over definitions. It is clear that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine; these crimes do not become worse, in any legal or moral sense, if they are found to meet a legal or scholarly definition of “genocide.” Nor could any such finding legally require third parties, like the United States, to intervene directly in the war.
But in other ways, the debate over what to call Russian war crimes is hugely significant.
The charge of “genocide” is uniquely powerful in international public opinion, owing to the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Nowhere is this more true than Germany, the country that also will play the most important role in determining whether to impose painful new sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas sector.
And if a genocide really is occurring in Ukraine, it matters for the victims to document it and show the world — and then, after the fighting, identify ways to hold at least some of the perpetrators accountable.
Is what’s happening in Ukraine “genocide”?
Genocide is not merely a word for mass killing in general. In international law, per the 1948 Genocide Convention, it refers to any of the following five acts if they are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Under this definition, not every act of violence against civilians qualifies as an act of genocide — nor does every such act motivated by racial, national, or religious hatred. Instead, it is an act of genocide when it is part of a plan to “destroy” the target group — that is, to annihilate not just individual members but the group as a collective.
In the Russian case, establishing that Russian soldiers intentionally killed Ukrainian civilians is not enough to prove genocide. It wouldn’t even be enough if the soldiers said they did it because they hated Ukrainians. Instead, you would need to show that the killings were part of an intentional effort to wipe out the Ukrainian people.
Most of the recognized authorities, including independent genocide watchdogs like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, have yet to join Biden in saying that such a campaign is happening in Ukraine. But some experts, like Johns Hopkins University political scientist Eugene Finkel, are ready to label what’s occurring genocide.
A scholar of the Holocaust who was born in Ukraine, Finkel was skeptical of Ukrainian claims of genocide early in the conflict. But the events of the past two weeks have changed his mind.
First, he argues that the horrors of Bucha — where entire families were executed — were not isolated incidents, pointing to evidence of other civilian killings in Russian-occupied towns. (Russia has denied its soldiers are responsible for the killings in Bucha; on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said reports of the atrocities there were “fake.”)
“Bucha is a feature, not a bug. It’s not some localized incident,” Finkel says. “In each of those places, it could be written off as undisciplined Russian soldiers ... but together, it clearly indicates that they were looking specifically for Ukrainians [to kill].”
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The bodies of two civilians seen on a street in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 4. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Second, Finkel argues, recent statements from the Russian government provide evidence of intent to commit genocide.
An April 4 article in the Russian state-run news outlet RIA Novosti called for a generation-long process of “re-education” in Ukraine, with an aim toward destroying the very idea of Ukrainian identity (“Denazification will inevitably include de-Ukrainization,” as the author put it). On April 5, top Putin deputy Dmitry Medvedev took a similar line: “It should not be surprising that Ukraine, which has been transformed mentally into the Third Reich … will suffer the same fate.” These comments reflect a broader turn in Russian state media commentary, portraying the entire Ukrainian population as a brainwashed threat to Russia that must be transformed if “Nazism” is to be defeated.
These statements, for Finkel, provide the crucial evidence of genocidal intent — linking the actions of Russian soldiers in towns like Bucha to a broader aim of exterminating an entire “national” group.
“I never thought I would see a government almost advertising genocide, but that’s what Russians are doing,” he tells me.
Other experts are more cautious. Though all agree that Russian soldiers have engaged in intentional mass killings, they argue that there’s limited evidence of a systemic plan to exterminate the Ukrainian people. While the comments from Medvedev and the Russian press are disturbing, we have yet to see conclusive evidence attributing Russian behavior in places like Bucha to those specific motivations.
“It is very hard to tell at this point why these acts were committed,” says Kate Cronin-Furman, a professor who studies war crimes at University College London. “It is obvious that mass atrocities have been committed. It is hard at this point to infer intent.”
In the post-Holocaust world, people committing genocide rarely provide “smoking gun” proof of their thinking — a written-down order or meeting record detailing a plan to exterminate the target group. Instead, scholars and war crimes prosecutors pore over a repository of data — ranging from interviews with victims and perpetrators to satellite photos of the killings — to make their most educated guesses. Even with the benefit of hindsight, these methods can be frustratingly inconclusive: There are still tremendous debates over historical cases of mass killing, and even the adequacy of the Genocide Convention definition itself.
“We come up with very different counts of how many genocides there were in history,” says Franziska Boehme, a scholar of genocide at Texas State University. “In the 20th century, some say three. Others say upward of 20.”
This difficult task is, of course, much harder in the context of an ongoing war. Information on the ground in Ukraine is scarce, and what does come out can be polluted by the fog of war. The Ukrainians, for understandable reasons, have every incentive to play up any report of Russian wrongdoing — no matter how thinly evidenced.