Why isn’t Russia accused of genocide?

by Trudy Rubin

If Israel is being charged with genocide at the International Court of Justice, why isn’t Russia?

This is a question I find very troubling, as do some of my readers. Despite harsh critiques of the civilian carnage in Gaza caused by Israel’s bombs — of which I have written my share — that war originated with a grisly Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. And Hamas explicitly calls in its charter for the military destruction of Israel and the death of its Jews.

Ukraine, on the other hand, never attacked Russia. Yet Vladimir Putin unleashed a brutal war against a peaceful neighbor that specifically targets civilians. Moreover, he has made no secret of his intentions, which are the critical element in finding a verdict of genocide.

Putin has said repeatedly that Ukraine has no right to exist separately from Russia.

“What I don’t understand,” one reader wrote, “is that Russia has invaded a sovereign country and for two years has brutally attacked, killed, and raped so many Ukrainian innocent people and destroyed their infrastructure and homes; and yet Putin and his government have not been charged with genocide — how is that possible?”

How indeed?

Before I attempt to answer, let’s look at the compelling case against Russia.

According to the 1948 Genocide Convention, a charge of genocide requires deliberate “intent to destroy in whole or part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such.” The means can include killing group members, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately imposing conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Intent is the key word, and Putin has made crystal clear his intention to swallow Ukraine into the Russian empire as a subjugated entity, as he has done with Belarus. Over and over he has rejected the idea of Ukrainian statehood, insisting that Ukraine and Russia “are one people” and “that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

“The idea of the Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians,” he declared the night before the 2022 invasion, ” has no historical basis.”

Putin’s front men have been blunt about wiping out any remnants of Ukraine-ness from that country. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, on whom Putin leans to dispense cannon fodder troops to the front lines, says that “Ukronazi trash” and “rodent pests” (i.e., Ukrainian leaders) should be “wiped from the face of the Earth.”

Talking heads on Russian state-controlled TV, along with some parliament members, have proposed drowning Ukrainian children; they call Ukrainians “scum,” the “brown plague,” “nonhuman.” They also talk of killing millions of Ukrainians and turning Ukrainian children into Russians.

That last scenario is not far-fetched. Officials have documented at least 19,000 Ukrainian children who have been taken away to Russia, and the number could be much higher.

“Forced deportation of children is one of the elements of genocide, and was a matter of intentional policy, taking them not only from orphanages but from families,” I was told in July in Kyiv by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin.

Ukraine has successfully charged Putin with war crimes for kidnapping children before the International Criminal Court — a separate venue from the International Court of Justice that handles cases of genocide.

Meantime, Russia systematically bombs infrastructure — electric grids, heating units, schools, hospitals, markets, hotels, pizza parlors, even blowing up a dam — and leveling whole cities such as Mariupol. I have seen unbelievable horrors with my own eyes, shattered apartment buildings nowhere near any military installation, blasted churches, and shredded restaurants. All targeted to convince Ukrainians they have no alternative but to surrender to Russian rule.

If all this doesn’t stink sufficiently of genocidal aims, I have interviewed escapees from Russian-occupied Ukraine who confirm that their Russian overlords harshly punish any reference to Ukraine’s national history or any use of the Ukrainian language (contrary to Putin’s lies, one can still hear Russian spoken in bilingual cities like Kharkiv, even as they are hit by Russian bombs).

Knowing all that, why has Israel been charged with intent to commit genocide and Russia not? The answer is both practical and highly political.

With limited resources, Ukraine is focused on documenting more specific war crimes before evidence fades, and Kostin’s office has so far amassed evidence of 109,000 cases.

But that doesn’t tell us why no other country as brought a genocide case against Russia — as South Africa has done with Israel. One obvious answer is that power talks.

“The world is afraid of the consequences of charging Russia,” argues Peter Doran, an expert on Russia and Ukraine at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “A lot of statesmen fear the idea of putting Putin in the dock because they want to go back to the world as it was pre-February 2022, when the Russians invaded. They want to start negotiations with Putin and move on. But you can’t go back.”

I believe Doran is correct. Charging Israel and not Russia reflects the fact that the global south refuses to recognize that Moscow’s war on Ukraine is genocidal colonialism at its ugliest and most deliberate.

It was not surprising to hear from Kostin that South Africa was reluctant to support Ukraine’s war crimes charge against Putin for kidnapping children. That would have required Pretoria, as an International Criminal Court signatory, to arrest Putin if he stepped on its soil to attend a conference.

“The countries of the global south need to understand that if they put their short-term interests above the human rights values that they’ve fought for for decades, then this evil will return,” Kostin told me. “Now is a very important moment for that part of the world that believes force matters more than justice.”

In other words, the big fry like Russia and China will see that much of the world will give them a free pass for genocidal aggression.

To charge Israel and not Russia makes the genocide charge look like a political tool to bash the West rather than a search for justice in an ugly world.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.