As of this summer, the Russians had forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians — mostly women — from the Ukrainian territories they occupy, including about 260,000 children. Those numbers have grown since then. For example, during the Russian retreat from Kherson, the attackers may have displaced another 60,000 Ukrainians in less than a week. With their bloodcurdling Orwellian euphemisms, the Russians boast that millions of Ukrainians have “found shelter” or have been “adopted” in Russia.
Why women and children in particular? So that in the future the women will give birth to “Russian” instead of “Ukrainian” babies, and the children will forget they were once Ukrainian and become Russian instead. That rhymes with one rationale that President Vladimir Putin has been giving all along before his invasion. According to him, Ukraine is not a country at all, but a region of Russia that suffers from the “false consciousness” that it is a nation. It follows that Putin must destroy Ukraine as a culture, state and people. One way to do that is to get Ukrainians out and Russians in.
If that sounds like an attempt at ethnic cleansing, it is. The local meaning of the word genocide (from the Greek for “killing a tribe”) implies the killing of any member of a race or nation. The legal definition of ‘genocide’, as defined by the United Nations in 1948 with the Holocaust in mind, is broader. It includes killing members of the tribe, race, nation, or group. But it also includes inflicting physical or mental harm “calculated to cause [the group’s] physical destruction in whole or in part.” Russia’s systematic bombing of Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure fits that part of the description.
Last but not least, the legal meaning of genocide also includes “measures designed to prevent births within the group”, and specifically “the forcible transfer of children of the group to another group”. In that sense, everything Putin has done this year suggests that he is, in fact, trying to commit genocide.
Putin is just the latest perpetrator in a long and tragic history of mass deportations of people and ethnic cleansing. It is also a story for which Moscow, under the tsars and especially the Soviets, has written more than enough chapters. And in this anthology, the Ukrainians include their own thick book as victims.
At various points in the 20th century, the Kremlin purged parts of Ukraine and the region of Cossacks, Kulaks, Tatars, and other groups, dumping the victims mostly in Siberia or Central Asia. At the time, Moscow typically enveloped its motifs in the terminology of class rather than ethnicity. But it came down to about the same thing. The traumas of these deportations – like that of Joseph Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukraine, now known as the Holodomor – are part of Ukraine’s collective memory.
For the individual victims, then and now, the process is one of sheer, inhumane terror. The Russians herd Ukrainian women and children into ‘filtration camps’. Parents, husbands, sons and daughters are divorced; their mobile phones and documents confiscated, their fingerprints scanned and identities erased, their fates shrouded in a dark haze. Some are abused. Others are merely sent to an unknown hell.
With Putin’s cold arithmetic, the few million Ukrainian women and children who have been deported from their native countries can be added to the millions of refugees – also a disproportionate number of women and youth – who have fled to the European Union and elsewhere. It is estimated that about 20% of Ukrainians, and about twice as many women of childbearing age, are physically outside the country.
Their absence not only complicates future efforts to rebuild and prosper Ukraine. It also rips a room out of Ukraine’s national heartland.
If and when the warring parties exhaust themselves and begin negotiations, the list of sticking points will be long. It starts with the status of Crimea and the other Ukrainian regions that Putin claims to have ‘annexed’. It continues with Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and NATO, security guarantees from external powers and much more.
But the women and children the Russians kidnapped should be at the top of that list. The Kremlin, no matter who rules it at the time, must recognize the war crimes Russia has committed and allow the Ukrainians to return to their homes so that they – scarred as they are – can pick up what is left of their lives is.
In this demand, the West and the whole world must support Ukraine. And Kiev, if necessary, should value people over land, trade visible territory on a map for the country’s now-invisible mothers, sons and daughters. No ceasefire without their return deserves the title victory.
More from Bloomberg’s opinion:
Believe it or not, Putin’s enemies are now Nazi Satanists: Andreas Kluth
Vladimir Putin’s Guide to Alienating Allies: Clara Ferreira Marques
How the war between Russia and Ukraine can and cannot end: Leonid Bershidsky
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. He is the author of ‘Hannibal and Me’.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion