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Opinion: Why It Matters that We Call the Russian Invasion What It Is: Genocide, Not War

Russian President Vladimir, it is now widely known, has signed a bill into law that punishes with a prison sentence of up to 15 years those who promulgate narratives counter to the Russian government’s position on the nation’s criminal and murderous invasion of Ukraine. 

The Russian government refers to its savagery against the Ukraine people as a “special military operation.” Calling it anything else, such as a “war” or “invasion” will earn one hard time inside the borders of Russia.

While it’s rare to find something about which one can agree with Putin, I will suggest he is right that we shouldn’t refer to their acts of barbarism and wholesale mass murder as “war.”

We need to call it what it is: an act of genocide.

Words matter quite a bit in this instance.

To call Putin’s unprovoked and relentless assault on the civilian population of Ukraine a “war,” with its clear intent to kill and terrorize civilians as well as destroy residences and supplies of food, water, and energy—indeed, all that is required to sustain life—is to evade the international responsibility to intervene.

Calling it genocide doesn’t just empower, it enjoins, the member nations of the United Nations to intervene and protect lives of the Ukrainian people.

We have heard, of course, the worries expressed by the United States and other world leaders that to declare and police a no-fly zone or otherwise commit military forces to fighting alongside the Ukrainian people could very well lead to World War III.

This claim itself is rather dubious. It seems unlikely at this point that even China would get involved on Russia’s behalf.  Russia is, indeed, a pariah nation; and it’s not at all clear any nation would want to join Russia’s ill-conceived, foolish, and absolutely inhumane barbarism against the NATO alliance.

But that dubiousness aside, we need to see this worry as an evasion of responsibility, and one made possible by calling this criminal aggression a war.

A war suggests there are two aggressors trying to resolve a disagreement through force, through armed conflict.

There was no disagreement here to be resolved. The whole world understands that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Putin simply doesn’t like that fact and has made up his own rules, denying that sovereignty and objecting to the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination. 

Plus, Putin is actually going after civilian populations more than he is engaging military targets. That’s not war.

If someone just starts shooting at me because they don’t want me to exist or because they want what I have, that’s not really war. That’s attempted homicide.

On the world stage, among nations, I don’t think we call that war either. It’s genocide—especially, to repeat, when Putin is targeting civilians more than he is engaging the Ukrainian military forces.

And members of the United Nations have agreed that when a genocide is being committed, member nations must respond.

In 2005, on the heels of the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations endorsed “the principle that State sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the State to protect its own people, and that if the State was unwilling or unable to do so, the responsibility shifted to the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect them.”

And in the Outcome Document of the 2005 United Nations World Summit, this principle of protection enshrined in article one of the Genocide Convention was elaborated in terms of three key pillars:

1) The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;

(2) The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;

(3) The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations

In the case of the Russian genocide against the Ukrainian people, the Ukraine nation is ill-equipped to protect its own population. They do not have the military wherewithal to stop Putin’s relentless bombing and killing of civilians. This fact enjoins the international community to intercede to protect the Ukrainian people.

In her 2002 book ‘A Problem from hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power studied in depth America’s repeated reluctance to take serious action to stop genocides.

Most generously, she at one point concedes, “Because genocide is usually veiled under the cover of war, some U.S. officials at first had genuine difficulty distinguishing deliberate atrocities against civilians from conventional conflict.”

Of course, there is no such difficulty of distinguishing atrocities against Ukrainian civilians from conventional conflict when it comes to Russia’s assaults.

Power’s analyses are, on the whole, much less generous, though, when assessing the actions of U.S. officials throughout the 20th century when it comes to avoiding confronting genocide. And these analyses resonate rather powerfully with the contemporary moment.

For example, she writes,

“They steadfastly avoided use of the word ‘genocide,’ which they believed carried with it a legal and moral (and thus political) imperative to act. And they took solace in the normal operations of the foreign policy bureaucracy, which permitted an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern.”


“The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to.  They believed genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.”

Power’s analyses are damning and arguably apply quite formidably to the current situation in the Ukraine.

But they aren’t just damning from a moral and humanitarian perspective.

The refusal to stop Putin and protect the Ukrainian people and their democracy endangers democracy not just around the globe but here at home in the United States as well, where it is already frighteningly fragile.

Calling Putin’s barbarous attack on the Ukrainian people and their democracy what it is, a genocide, would hopefully provide the clarity and impetus for the international community to protect Ukrainian lives and democracy around the globe.

Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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