April 4, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Genocide ‘for all to see’ — except the Russian people. They’re getting the Fox treatment
"Who would want to give up the lies for a version in which their sons died committing atrocities against an innocent people? Nobody.”
Some of us have been using “genocide” to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequent flattening of cities. Over the weekend, Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, a port city. Here’s Bloomberg:
Bucha “has become the center of claims of war crimes committed by Russian troops. Pictures of unarmed dead civilians, some with hands tied behind their backs, have ignited global outrage and calls for more sanctions on Moscow, which says the images are staged.”
Eugene Finkel, a preeminent authority on genocide at the Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, said: “As a genocide scholar I am an empiricist. I usually dismiss rhetoric. I also take genocide claims with a truckload of salt, because activists apply it almost everywhere now. Not now. There are actions. There is intent.
“[Bucha] is as genocide as it gets.
“Pure, simple and for all to see.”
“There is no incentive to give up on comforting lies casting you as the heroic good guy in contrast to the painful truth. Nobody would want to make that switch voluntarily, but the Kremlin’s intense crackdown on protest or opposition is also a strong disincentive!”
The president said Monday via USA Today: “‘We saw what happened in Bucha. [Vladimir Putin] is a war criminal,’ he said while returning to the White House from Delaware, adding the Russian leader is ‘brutal.’”
The US and Europe are now talking about additional sanctions to punish Putin and scare off copycats. The EU’s foreign envoy Josep Borrell said: “The Russian authorities are responsible for these atrocities, committed while they had effective control of the area.
“The massacres in the town of Bucha and other Ukrainian towns will be inscribed in the list of atrocities committed on European soil.”
So it’s genocide. Full stop. The truth is “for all to see.”
Except ordinary Russians.
As far as they’re concerned, the Bucha massacre was “done by professionals, probably British. They’re the best in the area of information operations. [They know how] to place the bodies correctly, do everything correctly, create a nice picture for the necrophilic Western consciousness,” according to one pundit (my italics).
Another pundit, per BBC Monitoring, said: “Bucha was chosen for the West’s ‘egregious accusation against Russia’ because Biden recently called Putin a ‘butcher,’ so the word “should be clear to Americans.”
Yet another said: “The war against Russia entered a new phase today. … Very soon they’ll accuse us of genocide. … To all appearances this whole provocation was plotted by the British” (my italics).
And: “The west is using Bucha to legalize future purges in areas previously occupied by the Russian army. The people were killed by Ukrainian forces because they didn’t resist the Russians. The West is giving Ukraine approval to extra-judicially kill those they deem traitors”
Finally: “All those who died were some kind of road-traffic offenders.”
“They perceive cultural threats as existential threats. The 2021 National Security Strategy made this clear and Putin’s use of ‘cancel culture’ are obvious attempts to reinforce this point to the public at large.”
The Kremlin controls Russian “news” media. It spent the day giving Bucha the Fox treatment, turning facts upside down, backwards and prolapsed. Russian “news” talking heads reacted to the massacre the way Tucker Carlson reacted to the J6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Fake news is basically what they said.
Just as Fox (and other rightwing media) has a hold on the minds of ordinary Americans, Russian “news” media has a hold on the minds of ordinary Russians. It’s so powerful the sight of mothers grieving dead sons is not enough to turn Russians against Putin. Just the opposite, Dr. Jade McGlynn, of the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies, told me.
“Who would want to give up that version for a version in which their sons died committing atrocities against an innocent people?
Some say Putin will be pressured to end the war in Ukraine once enough Russian soldiers are killed. You have said that’s wrong. Why?
Because many Russians will not see Putin as responsible for the deaths of Russian soldiers. They see instead Ukrainians and the collective West as responsible. The mothers of those dead sons are perhaps more likely than any to harden their views on this.
If you have to bear the unimaginable pain of your son dying, it is easier to handle that agony if the death makes sense, if it was for something, and even better if he died a hero’s death. In Russian culture, there is no greater cult of heroism than for the Great Victory of 1945.
This is how Putin and others are framing Russia’s war on Ukraine (and have been since 2014) – as a rerun of what they call the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), an updated version of Russia versus Nazis.
Incentives point in the direction of maintaining the lies?
Yes, there is no incentive to give up on comforting lies casting you as the heroic good guy in contrast to the painful truth. Nobody would want to make that switch voluntarily, but the Kremlin’s intense crackdown on protest or opposition is also a strong disincentive!
Some say that sanctions are going to hurt normal Russians, that the pain of sanctions will pressure Putin into ending the war.
But if grieving mothers won’t blame Putin, why would people who’ve lost savings, can’t get toilet paper and so on? Same principle, no?
I agree. I think it is the same principle.
I think sanctions are helpful here in setting a deterrent to other countries who might pursue similar wars. But they won’t turn the public against Putin, certainly not in the short term anyway.
Much more productive here is the support for Ukraine, especially as a major Russian propaganda line is that the west is abandoning Ukraine.
How does this (the sanctions principle, as it were) jive with some Russians talking about the “end of Russia.” Kamil Galeev: “Russians themselves are now talking about the imminent end of this state.”
Russian officials always talk in very existential language.
They perceive cultural threats as existential threats. The 2021 National Security Strategy made this clear and Putin’s use of “cancel culture” are obvious attempts to reinforce this point to the public at large.
I personally do not interpret this as a Russian belief the state will collapse, but rather officials playing on the trauma of the Soviet collapse, and the knowledge among Russians of how awful state collapse is, to heighten the sense of external threat and risk among ordinary people and, with it, support for a preemptive war.
Let’s talk about the Russian military. I suspect normal people have no idea, for instance, the soldiers invading Ukraine are conscripts and ethnic minorities. Can you touch on this and other facets?
Many of the soldiers we see in Ukraine are conscripts, despite it technically being illegal to send conscripts to war.
They have been tricked there or don’t have much choice.
But there have also been deaths among volunteers or professionals in other military or police groups, like Rosgvardiya. Many of the conscript deaths have been from poorer rural regions and ethnic minorities. These people have less power and less voice than average Russians.
However it is worth noticing that letting ethnic minorities take all the hits is not a risk-free option, as it could spark separatist sentiment, to which Putin is very sensitive. (Calls for separatism are illegal in Russia.)
This is probably why Russian news media has tried showing Putin frequently meeting and talking with the heads of non-ethnic Russian republics as well as why such a big deal has been made of ethnic minority heroism in the war (eg, Dagestani and Chechnya).
You said conscripts are being “tricked.” How so?
They are made to sign contracts that technically turn them into volunteers. Or they are told they are just going on exercises and next thing they know, they are in Ukraine taking fire.
Morale is rock bottom. Some blame the “culture of dedovshchina.”
Yes, morale appears very low, because of the high losses but also lies (to trick people into fighting and also that they would be welcomed with open arms by liberated Ukrainians). Dedovshchina refers to hazing of younger conscripts by veterans or more senior conscripts.
It sets the tone for military culture. It makes people frightened but also hateful of superiors. It is usually worse when conscripts join so it will be an even bigger issue for the next round of called-up soldiers.
In your view, what explains the stalled invasion (actual convoy being stuck for weeks)? In other words, why the pivot to shelling cities?
Clearly, the Kremlin had been getting high on its own supply of propaganda. That’s one reason. Another is that this same propaganda makes it difficult to go straight into flattening cities.
Why would they need to do that if they were liberators?
But increasingly we are seeing small towns and even cities like Mariupol being destroyed. We will only see more of that.
This is being justified in Russian media as targeting the Azov Battalion (or accusing the Azov Battalion destroying cities themselves) and this view does appear to be widespread among the Russian population. [The Azov Battalion is an actual neo-Nazi group in Ukraine. Putin used it as a pretext for the original invasion. See this interview for more.]
Given the power of the Kremlin’s propaganda, is there a way out of this for Putin? I mean, could there be a negotiated settlement? Or would anything but clear military victory be seen as defeat?
I think there could be if Russia could take all of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as this has always been framed as about protecting them.
But I don’t know if Ukraine would agree to that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.