One of the most disturbing of developments in Ukraine in recent days – admittedly of many barbarities and atrocities – has been the claim by Mariupol Town Council that thousands of its citizens have been forcibly taken from there to Russia.
This is not been completely independently verified by reliable news sources, and it is difficult to do so, but it is sadly plausible. The propaganda value of hungry Ukrainians fleeing supposed neo-Nazi persecution is obvious.
Mostly women, children and old folk, you’d imagine the traumatised exiles of Mariupol are headed for camps and may never go home; as far as we know there is no programme in Russia for people’s homes to be opened up for the refugees; not least because the bombed-out refugees might start spreading the truth about war crimes.
In the grand scale of the 10 million or so Ukrainians displaced from the homes, the expulsion from Mariupol is a relatively small number. The wider significance lies in what it may tell us about Russian intentions towards those parts of Ukraine it occupies or may continue to occupy during and after the war. It may herald the destruction of Ukraine as a recognisable state. And, more to the point, the west will do precisely nothing militarily to prevent it.
The fear is that Russia will inflict on Ukraine what was called during the Tsarist and Soviet eras “Russification” and “Russianisation”. This means the forcible transformation of a whole region via social and cultural changes, favouring the Russian language, state ideology, religion and way of life.
The most potent weapon was a combination of compulsory deportation of troublesome indigenous peoples and their replacement through state-sponsored migration of a large population of ethnic Russians. The aim was to change the whole character of the a region, supposedly cementing the area inside the Russian/Soviet empire.
If Putin wants to set up Russianised puppet “people’s republics” states in the south and east of Ukraine, or join them into the Russian Federation, this is one method he could deploy. Along with vote-rigging and propaganda, a large transfer of population would secure a pro-Putin majority in any referendum, and legitimatise the dismemberment of Ukraine. In due course it would leave Ukraine at best as a rump state – landlocked, almost surrounded by Russian satellites, permanently menaced by Russia – with many hundreds of thousands of its citizens effectively held hostage in Russia.
How many of the three million Ukrainians, overwhelmingly women and children, will Putin allow back into Ukraine if he wins this war? We assume they’ll be allowed back, to be with their husbands sons and bothers – but will they? They might be regarded by the Kremlin as unpatriotic renegades and “neo-Nazis”, and the west can have them. They could be replaced by Russians looking for a new life, with land and homes promised to them in new territories controlled by the Kremlin. Language, art, culture – all would be diluted through Russification. Ukrainians would be facing something adjacent to genocide.
In Putin’s twisted world view, he could not possibly be guilty of the destruction of Ukrainian culture or national identity anyway because those things don’t exist. Ukrainians are Russians and the country isn’t real. President Zelensky and 40 million Ukrainians might beg to differ.
In such a circumstance of Russian domination, and despite the massive bravery of its people, Ukraine would be left denuded and intimidated, with little freedom to determine its own destiny. It is little wonder the Ukrainians are fighting as hard as there are.
Last month the US told the United Nations it had credible information showing that Moscow is compiling lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation”. This is what Russia means by “denazification” – the elimination of politicians, civil servants, teachers, intellectuals and the like who would cause trouble.
The letter, written by Bathsheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations warns about targeted human rights abuses: “These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, unjust detentions and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions.”
Crocker alleges Russian military targets would include Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and “vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons.” Many would be killed or sent to camps, or exiled. One shudders to think what would happen to Volodomyr Zelensky if Putin captured him.
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Such tactics are nothing new. As a dedicated, if misguided, student of Russian history, Putin knows very well the playbook of his autocratic predecessors. One of the reasons why Crimea has a comparatively high proposition of Russians is because hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tartars were rounded up and packed off to Uzbekistan for being short during the second world war.
The expulsion of Kulaks (small farmers) during forced collectivisation also reduced Ukraine’s population and destroyed established social structures in the early 1930s. It contributed to the great famine of 1932-33, known as the Holodomor. It is a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor).
Centuries of forced desperations, Russianisation and Russification also left behind other legacies – including sizable Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia, and expelled Finns from Karelia – presenting Europe with fresh opportunities for friction and conflict. In Putin’s eyes the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical tragedy because of the instability it created. The reality is that the USSR and the Russian Empire before it avidly created instabilities.
Putin is obediently following that dishonourable tradition by inflicting a second Holodomor on Ukraine, this time as a means of warfare. And, just like Stalin’s previous persecution of Ukraine, the west is not going to stop it.