In late February 2022, Russia accused Ukraine of genocide against the people of the Russian-speaking Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – also a major industrial and mining center, with some of the largest coal reserves on the continent.
In a speech that month, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to execute a “special military operation” in Ukraine, insisting he did not plan to occupy Ukraine, or go to war. “We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force,” he said at the time. (At the same time, Russia’s communications regulator ordered Russian media to remove reports calling Moscow’s attack on Ukraine an “assault, invasion, or declaration of war,” preferring terms like “peacekeeping” operation instead.)
Since 2014, the Ukraine army fiercely clashed with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. While a ceasefire was signed in 2015 in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, sporadic shelling and gunfire continued, culminating in Putin’s address of Feb. 24, 2022, marking the start of the war. In it, he stated, “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The invocation of genocide by Putin dated back at least to 2015 – a charge Ukraine to this day vehemently denies – leading to a confrontation between the two countries this month in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands.
Just two days into the Russian invasion, Ukraine filed a complaint with the court alleging Moscow falsely claimed acts of genocide as justification for the war, in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Under Article 1 of the convention, all contracting parties, which include both Russia and Ukraine, must punish and prevent genocide. Ukraine is effectively accusing Russia of perverting Article 1 to justify the invasion.
A 15-judge panel at The Hague listened this week to oral arguments, with Russia stating it needed to act “decisively and immediately” after multiple notifications of ceasefire violations and the “bloodshed, agony and suffering of the people” in the Donbas region, although Moscow acknowledged it could not verify all of those reports. Between spring 2014 and early 2022, it’s estimated that fighting in the region killed more than 14,000 people.
Russia also argued before ICJ judges that Ukraine’s complaint against it lies outside the convention’s scope, so the court has no jurisdiction over it.
Moscow declined to participate in an earlier hearing in March 2022, after which the ICJ’s judges ordered Russia to immediately halt its invasion of Ukraine in a verdict of 13 to 2 (with only the Russian and Chinese judges dissenting). In October 2022, Moscow introduced official proceedings challenging the jurisdiction of the ICJ – the United Nations’ judicial branch and the only international court that settles disputes between countries.
U.S. officials estimate the total number of Ukrainian and Russian troops killed or wounded is almost 500,000 since the war began.
In its oral arguments this week, Russia pointed out that it invoked Article 51 of the U.N. Charter – the right to self-defense – and not genocide as the basis for its invasion of Ukraine in a letter to the U.N. in February 2022, although it conceded Putin’s speech did touch on genocide as a reason.
Legal experts have noted that casualties between Russia and Ukraine are not automatically tantamount to genocide, unless there is an intention to wipe out an entire nation or ethnic group of people. “It is well-documented that, since 2014, both sides have committed human rights violations in Donbas and innocent people have been killed and abused,” Alexander Hinton, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University noted at the start of the conflict. “But there is no credible evidence that genocide is taking place. None. Russia has made vague references to mass graves and civilian attacks. If it had proof, you can be sure Russia would have provided it long ago.”
According to the U.N., the definition of genocide encompasses “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, as national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” This would include mass murder, the destruction of a group of people’s way of life, and separating children from parents and raising them in a different environment.
As Ukraine challenges Russia’s allegations of genocide at The Hague, U.N. investigators examining violations in Ukraine reported this week that rhetoric conveyed by Russian media may qualify as incitement to genocide.
In remarks to the U.N. Human Rights Council, investigators with a committee of inquiry said Russian authorities committed “a wide range of war crimes,” including the forced removal of Ukrainian children to areas under Russian control.