In a recent interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked a simple yet profound question: Why this cruelty? Are Russian war crimes in Ukraine simply a further illustration of the inevitable barbarism of warfare? Only what might be expected from past experience of Russian army brutality? Yet there was something pathetic in the sight of a downcast young Russian soldier on trial last week, the first no doubt of many, pleading guilty to murdering a Ukrainian civilian. Even the mother of the victim felt sorry for the young man though said she could never forgive him.
We have become accustomed to hearing Zelensky’s voice from war-torn Ukraine, the consistency of his appeals for help and his defiant courage. So listening to him in translation when he was beamed into Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank, seemed nothing unusual. Though Zelensky’ reflections on the reason for the war crimes committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians were unexpected.
Zelensky’s believes that Putin’s flood of propaganda during the eight years since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk region has had a profound effect. Russian war crimes were both “a victory” and a “collective witness” for the success of Russian propaganda and psyops. Many of the soldiers committing the atrocities would have been 10-12 year old in 2014 and since then exposed to unremitting lies and hate speech. The problem was getting hateful ideas out of soldiers’ minds, ‘cleansing this propaganda’ once it was implanted. “Goebbels is a child compared to the adults in the Kremlin machine hunting a whole nation”, was his well-chosen comparison. That Zelensky is Jewish himself made his reflections all the more powerful.
Zelensky’s sense of the power of propaganda can be applied to other mass crimes in other countries. The vicious anti-Tutsi propaganda in the months leading up to the by Radio Libre des Mille Collines controlled by Hutu extremists contributed significantly to the Rwandan genocide. The Tutsi were dehumanised, called inyenzi, cockroaches, as, of course, were Jews during the build up to the Holocaust. Unlike, for example, in many Latin American countries, the Catholic Church in Rwanda did not have a radio station able to combat the poisonous ethnic propaganda.
The active promotion of hate-speech and falsehood by governments, authoritarian or racist, is one thing. That by non-state actors is another. In liberal democratic States, the State has the apparatus to counter extremist hate-speech whether white supremacist or tending towards jihadism. Whether or not it is used effectively, and dog-whistle ‘othering’ of minority ethnic groups or migrants for political purposes outlawed, is another matter. And Zelensky’s reflections raise the question of how a political culture of lies can be combatted, the role of journalists and social media, at what point cracks appear and the public realise they have been taken for fools?
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a client State, suggests some answers. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it claimed that it was defending the 1978 April Afghan revolution to bring ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ [sic] to the Afghan people who needed the support of ‘warrior-internationalist’ Soviet troops and air-power. Thanks to the CIA’s Operation Cyclone providing the Afghan mujahideen via Pakistan with increasingly sophisticated weaponry (from September 1986 onwards the US delivered 2,300 Stinger surface to air missiles - shades of the future Ukraine) the war dragged on until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. While the probable number of Afghan deaths was between 600,000 and 1.5 million, crucially some 15,000 Soviet troops had died. Within four years of the invasion public opinion was turning against the war. Pre-Putin Russia was getting uncensored reports from bereaved mothers and news media, domestic and international.
In his book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador, estimates that Soviet Russia made 6,412 criminal charges against its own troops, including 714 of murdering civilians and the rest related to drugs and weapons sales. (There was also much cover-up). The common excuse for these war crimes was retaliation for the mujahideen’s own use of torture and their violation of the rules of war. Captured Soviet troops sometimes killed themselves rather than fall into mujahideen hands. “Even senior officers could be punished for allowing their troops to commit excesses”, Braithwaite claims. For example, the commander of the 191st. Independent Motor-rifle Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Kravchenko, was court-marshalled and sentenced to ten years after Afghan prisoners were shot.
Orchestrated hate requires a conductor of the orchestra. Enter President Vladimir Putin. Prime Minister 1999, President 2000-2008, Prime Minister again from 2008-2012, and then again President, Putin’s influence soon became apparent. During the war in Chechnya 1999-2009, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the European Court of Human Rights all found that no official had ever been tried for the enforced disappearance of from between 3,000 and 5,000 Chechens, or charged with any of the 60,000 Chechens deaths. Grozny, Chechnya’s main city, had been flattened like Aleppo and Mariupol. There are no signs that Putin will be submitting troops who have committed war crimes to court-martial or punishment in Ukraine. On the contrary the Russian Parliament is talking about trying Ukrainian troops surrendering from Mariupol for war crimes labelling them as Nazis. Putin and his coterie deny and condone Russian military atrocities.
“They hate life”, Zelensky told Chatham House. And hate, history tells us, is easier to conjure up than love. Soldiers sometimes talk of an overwhelming blood-lust after comrades-in-arms have been killed or tortured (there were notable US examples in Vietnam). Add the ruthless brutality of a leader whose sensibilities have been honed in the old KGB. Add years of conditioning Russian society for hate, shutting down all uncensored sources of news, and you have mass graves again. With perhaps worse to follow.
See TheArticle 23/05/2022