World·Analysis

A Kremlin paper justifies erasing the Ukrainian identity, as Russia is accused of war crimes

Even by the standards of Russian state media, the language in an editorial from RIA Novosti was extreme. It says the Ukrainian identity, leadership and culture must be erased.

Warning: This story contains images depicting dead bodies

An aerial view shows residential buildings that were damaged in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 3. A Russian state media editorial suggests the Kremlin wants to wipe out the Ukrainian identity. (Pavel Klimov/Reuters )

An editorial in a prominent Kremlin media outlet appears to provide justification for the war with its call to erase the Ukrainian identity — language that geopolitical experts say is especially alarming after the discovery of dozens of dead civilians in a Kyiv suburb.

Written by Timofei Sergeitsev in RIA Novosti, the rhetoric in the editorial — entitled "What Russia should do with Ukraine" — is inflammatory, even by the usual Russian state media standards.

It claims the word "Ukraine" itself is synonymous with Nazism and cannot be allowed to exist.   

"Denazification is inevitably also De-Ukrainianization,"  Sergeitsev writes, stating that the idea of Ukrainian culture and identity is fake.

A prominent scholar whose career has been spent studying historical genocide said he felt sickened by reading the article — but he was also convinced that the Kremlin is using it to justify atrocities in Ukraine to the Russian people and the military.

"It's just a clear, pretty laid-out template for what is going to happen," said Eugene Finkel, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "This article crossed the line between talking and thinking about the invasion as some kind of collection of war crimes into something much more co-ordinated."

Bags containing bodies of civilians, who residents says were killed by Russian army soldiers, are seen at a cemetery after being picked up from the streets in Bucha, in the Kyiv region. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military invasion into neighbouring Ukraine on Feb. 24, he justified the war by characterizing it as a way to "demilitarize" and "denazify" the country — utterly unfounded propaganda. 

Yet Sergeitsev's editorial seizes on those words and takes them much further, writing that Ukraine's elite "must be liquidated as re-education is impossible" and since a "significant part of the masses … are passive Nazis and accomplices," Russia's punishment of the Ukrainian people is justified.

A former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine said those words caused him significant concern, noting the editorial read like an instruction manual for Russian soldiers.

"It's essentially a rhetorical 'licence to kill,'" said Roman Waschuk, who continues to work closely with the Zelensky government in Ukraine.

"It says if someone strikes you as terribly Ukrainian, you can 'just off them' for the good of the cause."

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The editorial was published on April 3, the same day as the bodies of at least dozens of civilians were discovered in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha after the retreat of Russian forces.     

Many of the bodies displayed signs of torture or had their hands bound when they were killed. Eyewitnesses told media outlets that the civilians had been executed by Russian soldiers during almost a month of occupation.

Many world leaders have accused Russia's military of committing war crimes, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, and want Putin investigated as a war criminal.

'Nothing gets published without permission'

The key question, of course, is whether the editorial is channelling actual Kremlin policy on Ukraine — or if the author was trying to push Russia's leadership in that direction.

While Russian state media sources are notorious for making outrageous claims, RIA Novosti is seen as being especially close to the Kremlin and often attempts to reflect the official thinking, Finkel said.

"Here we are talking about an official state news agency and nothing gets published without permission from above."

Waschuk says he believes there's been ample evidence to suggest Russia's intention is to eliminate as many prominent Ukrainian leaders as possible.

A view of a dragon with depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin in its mouth in a pond in Helsinge, Denmark. Some world leaders are suggesting that Putin be tried as a war criminal. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/Reuters)

"Western intelligence agencies were saying in January that Russia was drawing up kill lists and arrest lists of people they saw as inimical to their cause and overly Ukrainian," he said.

"This [editorial] is just saying the quiet part out loud."

Other Russian media watchers suggest that while it's certainly possible the editorial was published with consent of Kremlin leadership, it's not necessarily the case.

"It's not the official line of the Kremlin," said Kirill Martynov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Russia's best known independent media outlet.

Justification for an unjust war

Martynov left Russia in the days after the invasion because of a government crackdown on independent media. He's now working from Riga, Latvia.

Martynov said he suspects the author of the article was asked by the publisher to offer some justification for what was happening in Ukraine — and this editorial is what he came up with, reflecting the generally ad hoc nature of the invasion since it began nearly six weeks ago.

"They [the Kremlin] started the war for no reason and afterward they invented a fantastic explanation for why it's necessary … the longer the war goes on, the more fantastic the explanations they will give," Martynov told CBC News.

Sergeitsev, the editorial's author, has previously written other extreme pieces about Ukraine for the same publication and has appeared as a pundit on Russian state TV,  but he's not a household name in Russia.

People react as they gather close to a mass grave in the town of Bucha, just northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Sunday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of committing "genocide" and attempting to eliminate the "whole nation" of Ukraine. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Martynov said it's impossible to know how much impact a single editorial such as this has on the Russian population, given the constant demonizing of Ukraine in the state media and that other sources of information about the war are banned.

The Levada Institute, arguably Russia's most reputable pollster, reported a week after the war began that Putin's approval ratings shot up to 83 per cent, but Martynov cautions about reading too much into that.

"It's a complicated story of opinion polls in a totalitarian regime," he said. "People are pretending [in order] to keep their families and workplaces safe."

Ever since Russian bombs and artillery began demolishing cities like Mariupol and Chernihiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused the Russian forces of committing "genocide," which he reiterated Monday after the discovery of dead and tortured civilians in Bucha. He said Russia was attempting to eliminate the "whole nation" of Ukraine.

Putin meets with Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

But Finkel, the genocide scholar, said he's usually extremely reluctant to use the term, as it's very hard to prove.

"The definition of [genocide] are acts committed with an intent to destroy an ethnic, racial or national group," he said. "There is a tendency to call what we don't like genocide.  But there is a criteria that is pretty hard to prove: you need to prove intent, which is almost impossible to do."

However, Finkel says articles such as the one in RIA Novosti,  along with speeches denying Ukrainian identity made by Vladimir Putin and former president Dmitri Medvedev do point to a pattern of behaviour and, likely, show intent. 

"It might not be clear orders from above, 'kill those people,' but the combination of state rhetoric and the actions of soldiers on the ground makes me think that [this is] not just some units that lose moral discipline — it's bigger than that."

For Ukrainians, the possible validation of the Russian agenda may not have much immediate impact on how the war unfolds or even the military help Western nations provide.

But Waschuk says it will definitely make any negotiations with Russia more difficult.

"It means that it's much harder to come to some temporary peace proposals," the former ambassador said.

"The Bucha killings are an emotional barrier and it makes it harder for Western countries to push Ukraine to end this war."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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