Russia Committing Genocide in Ukraine, Says Holocaust Expert

A Holocaust expert has told Newsweek that Russia is carrying out genocide in Ukraine, a conclusion he reluctantly drew following growing evidence of atrocities by Vladimir Putin's forces as well as the rhetoric coming from Moscow.

The U.S. stopped short of agreeing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Russia was committing genocide even if President Joe Biden did say alleged atrocities in the Kyiv region were a "war crime." Russia has denied atrocities.

Zelensky told CBS that pictures of dead civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha following the retreat of Russian forces showed that Putin sought "the elimination of the whole nation, of the people."

Biden has called Putin a "war criminal," but White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said they "have not yet seen the level of systematic deprivation of life" of Ukrainians putting it at "the level of genocide."

Not so, according to Eugene Finkel, author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, who told Newsweek, "I am actually a firm believer that we are dealing with a genocide."

"For me as an external but well informed observer, the tipping point was yesterday morning," he told Newsweek, following reports from Ukrainian officials that Russian soldiers killed at least 400 Bucha residents as they withdrew from the region amid shocking images of the carnage.

"From the Russian perspective, I think the tipping point was when they discovered that Ukrainians actually have no desire to be 'liberated,'" he said as the people were able to "fight back ferociously."

"When exactly this happened we might never know without getting access to Russian documents," he added.

The Kremlin has denied accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha and said that "the facts, the chronology of events also doesn't speak in favor of the credibility of these claims." Newsweek has contacted Russia's Defense Ministry for comment.

Finkel, who was born in Lviv, western Ukraine, and grew up in Israel, is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In a Twitter thread that sparked much comment on Monday, he said that he had resisted applying the term the genocide. What changed his view was "more and more evidence" that Bucha "was not an exception" combined with, "more importantly, explicit official rhetoric," from Moscow.

He referred to an article published on Monday by the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti by pundit Timofei Sergeitsev headlined "What Russia should do with Ukraine" which talked about the "final solution to the Ukrainian question".

It developed ideas about the illegitimacy of Ukrainian statehood Putin has endorsed, adding that most of Ukraine's population has "passively" enabled a "Nazi regime."

Sergeitsev proposes "re-education" built on "ideological repression" which includes control of the mass media and school curriculum, among other things

Finkel tweeted that it was "one of the most explicit statements of intent to destroy a national group as such that I've ever seen.

"I have read a lot of Russian nationalist rhetoric in my life," he wrote, "this is not some wild intellectual fantasy, it is a clear, actionable statement of intent by a state agency. The U.N. definition is problematic, but in this case it fits like a glove."

However, war crimes expert Philippe Sands told CNN that proving genocide "in legal terms is tougher."

"You have got to prove an intention to destroy the group, the Ukrainian group, in whole or in part," he said, "I think when President Zelensky refers to what is happening as a genocide, he is using it in a political sense rather than a legal sense."

Sands, a law professor at University College, London, did say that images emerging from Ukraine pointed towards Russia's targeting of civilians and "that looks like war crimes that crosses a threshold."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had documented cases of Russian forces committing war crimes against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine. The cases included rape, summary executions, and other forms of unlawful violence and threats.

In media comments shared with Newsweek, Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer and director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Litigation Project, said that the latest revelations represent "the most damning evidence yet" that Moscow was committing war crimes.

Nia said that, unlike with conflicts in Syria, Ethiopia, or Myanmar, "war-crimes investigators looking into accountability in Ukraine will have the benefit of access."

Michael Ignatieff, history professor at the Central European University, Budapest and Vienna, told Newsweek in a phone interview last month he was "always wary when people use the word genocide," but that Ukraine did face a threat "to its existence not only as a state but as a people."

He also said it was an "absolute moral scandal" that Putin was calling the Ukrainian government Nazis, and was using "de-Nazification" as his justification for war.

"It tarnishes the heroic role of the Soviet army in saving us from Nazis and from genocide [during World War II]. The thing that is so horrible is that it is an unforgivable abuse of the one aspect of the Soviet record that everybody in the world respects," Ignatieff said, "he is destroying the moral prestige of what he himself purports to believe."

Bucha victim
A neighbor comforts a woman whose husband and nephew were killed by Russian forces, as she cries in her garden in Bucha, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. The town is the scene of what Ukraine has denounced as a "genocide" by Russian forces. Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

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