By the summer of this year, the Russians had forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians – mostly women – from the Ukrainian territories they occupied, including about 260,000 children. Those numbers have grown since then. During the Russian withdrawal from Kherson alone, the attackers moved perhaps another 60,000 Ukrainians in less than a week. With their chilling Orwellian euphemisms, Russians boast that millions of Ukrainians have been “found refuge” or “adopted” in Russia.
Why women and children? So that in the future women will give birth to “Russian” instead of “Ukrainian” babies and the children will forget they were ever Ukrainian and become Russians instead. That rhymes with a rationale President Vladimir Putin has been giving for his invasion all along. In his narrative, Ukraine is not a country at all, just a region of Russia suffering from the “false awareness” of being a nation. It follows that Putin must destroy Ukraine as a culture, polity and people. One way to do that is to push the Ukrainians out and the Russians in.
If this sounds like an attempt at ethnic cleansing, it is. The colloquial meaning of the word genocide (from the Greek for “to kill a tribe”) means to murder every member of a race or nation. The legal definition of “genocide,” as established by the United Nations in 1948 when the Holocaust was on everyone’s lips, is broader. It involves killing members of the tribe, race, nation, or group. However, it also includes the infliction of physical or mental harm “which is intended to bring about [the group’s] physical destruction in whole or in part.” Russia’s systematic bombing of Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure fits this part of the description.
Last but not least, the legal meaning of genocide also includes “measures to prevent births within the group” and specifically “the forcible transfer of children from the group to another group”. In that sense, everything Putin has done this year suggests that he is indeed attempting to commit genocide.
Putin is only the latest in a long and tragic history of mass deportations and ethnic cleansing. It’s also a story for which Moscow wrote more than its fair share of chapters under the Tsars, and particularly under the Soviets. And in this anthology, Ukrainians as victims record their own thick volume.
At various points in the 20th century, the Kremlin purged parts of Ukraine and the region of Cossacks, kulaks, Tatars and other groups, usually dumping the victims in Siberia or Central Asia. Back then, Moscow typically clothed its motifs in terminology of class rather than ethnicity. But it came out the same. 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, the process was then, as now, an inhuman terror. The Russians are driving Ukrainian women and children into “filtration camps”. Parents, spouses, sons and daughters are separated; their phones and documents confiscated, their fingerprints scanned and identities erased, their fates shrouded in a dark veil. Some are abused. Others are merely sent to an unknown hell.
Using Putin’s cold arithmetic, the tens of millions of Ukrainian women and children who have been forced out of their homeland by deportation can be added to the millions of refugees – also disproportionately female and young – who have fled to the European Union and elsewhere. According to estimates, around 20% of Ukrainians and around twice that number of women of childbearing age are physically outside the country.
Not only does their absence complicate any future efforts to rebuild Ukraine and bring it to prosperity. It also tears a chamber out of Ukraine’s national heart.
If the warring parties exhaust themselves and enter into negotiations, the list of sticking points will be long. It starts with the status of Crimea and the other Ukrainian regions that Putin claims he has “annexed”. It continues with Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and NATO, security guarantees from outside powers and much more.
But the women and children the Russians kidnapped must be at the top of that list. The Kremlin, whoever runs it at this point, must recognize the war crimes committed by Russia and allow Ukrainians to return home so that, scarred as they are, they can take what is left of their lives is.
With this demand, the West and the whole world must support Ukraine. And Kyiv should, if necessary, value the people over land, trading visible terrain on a map for the now invisible mothers, sons and daughters of the nation. No truce without their return deserves the label of victory.
More from the Bloomberg 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 Russia-Ukraine war can and cannot end: Leonid Bershidsky
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion and reports on European politics. The former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
For more stories like this, visit bloomberg.com/opinion