In May 2022, three committees of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada appealed to national parliaments in EU and NATO member states as well as major international institutions to sanction Russian propaganda as part of the Russian military machine. This would include media organs and persons involved in disseminating propaganda along with their families.
Euromaidan Press spoke to two Ukrainian MPs who worked on this appeal – Iryna Herashchenko from the European Solidarity Party and Oleksandr Merezhko from the Servant of the People Party.
After Timofei Sergeytsev’s article, which was called “a genocide handbook,” it is hard to say that Russian propaganda is mere disinformation. Are Russian propagandists criminally responsible for inciting war and genocide?
The history of creating the juridical concept of propaganda for aggressive war is very long. A similar crime dates back to the Soviet era, although the author was the Polish-Jewish lawyer Emil Stanisław Rappaport. He himself survived World War II and was arrested by the Gestapo. In 1945 he wrote a book “The Criminal Nation” [the original Polish title is “Naród-Zbrodniarz”-ed.] about the Germans.
This crime of “propaganda for aggressive war” is even in the criminal code of the Russian Federation. It is enshrined as a crime in the law of many countries. First, in the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Article 20 clearly states that prolpaganda for war must be prohibited by law. There was also a corresponding declaration by the UN General Assembly, which concerned the non-use of force in international relations, along with a call to ban propaganda for war. War propaganda became a criminal offense.
What propagandists do, especially in times of war, is very dangerous and has nothing to do with journalism. This is the outbreak of aggressive war, and therefore a crime.
There is also a second component because, in addition to inciting war, Russian propagandists’ messages also incite genocide. And inciting genocide is in fact complicity in genocide.
Russia’s practice now is committing the crime of genocide against the Ukrainian people. It is important to bear in mind that Russia is pursuing a deliberate policy of genocide, part of which is propaganda aimed at dehumanizing Ukrainians. These propagandists have denied Ukrainians the right to exist independently. They say that either you consider yourself part of one [Russian] people or, if you do not agree with this and fight for your own identity as a separate Ukrainian people, then you are Nazis.
A denial of a people’s right to exist is now at the heart of Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda is state propaganda, as it is controlled by the Kremlin, and it is a purposeful state policy. That is why Russian propagandists are complicit in this crime of genocide.A denial of a people's right to exist is at the heart of Russian propaganda. It is controlled by the Kremlin, and is a purposeful state policy. That is why Russian propagandists are complicit in this crime of genocide Click To Tweet
If one wishes to search for a precedent, one need look no further than the decision of the International Criminal Court in Rwanda on the genocide of 1994, when about 800,000 Tutsis and a significant part of the Hutu population was killed. Some “journalists” received sentences of life imprisonment, others of 35 years. As an example, a radio journalist said that other nationalities were cockroaches. Dehumanization was carried out.
Propagandist Vladimir Solovyov in Russia is carrying out a specific propaganda order. He selects participants for his shows. In international law, in order to prove the crime of genocide, it is necessary to prove the intention to destroy a certain nation. And we can prove this intention precisely by Russian propaganda. What Putin cannot afford to say openly is said by Russian propagandists.
There is a third qualification of the crime Russian propagandists commit in addition to the propaganda of war and complicity in genocide. The case at the Nuremberg tribunal of Julius Streicher, who was the editor of the Völkischer Beobachter and one of the leading propagandists, is known as a precedent. He was convicted of a crime against humanity, that of aggressive propaganda that incites violence.To prove the crime of genocide, one needs to prove the intention to destroy a certain nation. And we can prove this precisely by Russian propaganda. What Putin cannot afford to say openly is said by propagandists Click To Tweet
In addition to these three crimes, propagandists can be accused of terrorism, but one needs to be careful with this qualification. There is the 1987 Geneva Declaration, but it is not legally binding. There is the term “state terrorism.” And as an example, disinformation and incitement against another state are given. That is, the actions of Russian propagandists can be called state terrorism, but it is more a political formulation than a legal one.
Proving that the murder in Srebrenica was genocide, propaganda was also used as proof to testify the intent to kill a specific group of people.
Even before Bucha and Irpin, an article by a German lawyer, Prof. Dr. Otto Luchterhandt appeared, arguing that Mariupol was an example of genocide.
One of the signs of genocide is the creation of conditions that lead to the destruction of the population. Russia has created such conditions around Mariupol by encircling it.
The second manifestation of genocide according to the 1948 Convention committed by Russian forces in Ukraine is the deportation of children.
Why was Srebrenica important? Until then, the West used the concept of ethnic cleansing very carefully, for if NATO and Western countries recognize that genocide is taking place, all countries are required to act immediately. As this is claimed to be the main lesson of the Second World War, mankind can no longer afford to simply observe genocide from the sidelines. If genocide is said to be occurring, then we must resolutely do everything we can to stop it, including the use of armed force, as was the case with NATO’s actions against Serbia. Therefore, Western politicians are very wary of the term genocide.
For us, the analog of Srebrenica is Bucha. Although each case is unique, if we talk about the world perception, Bucha marked the awareness and recognition that genocide is taking place in Ukraine. People were killed because they belonged to a certain ethnic group. After the Bucha massacre, the West began to help Ukraine more decisively, even Germany. Because before that, Germany said that we could not provide you with weapons, because these weapons would kill Russians. It was such a strange argument. And after Bucha, they realized, under pressure from public opinion, that they must move away from the policy of appeasing the aggressor.
What should the state do to bring the Russian propagandists to justice as war criminals?
First of all, we need to identify those people who are suspected of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. All these categories of crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
The difficulty of bringing to justice is that it requires the physical arrest of a person because it is not always possible to do so in absentia. If a person who has committed crimes is captured as a prisoner of war, he can be prosecuted. This is the first option. There is also an international system, an international criminal court. But it is actually a superstructure over the national legal system. For example, when Slobodan Milosevic was extradited to the International Criminal Court.
Also, if a Russian citizen suspected of committing war crimes finds himself in a third country, e.g., on vacation in Türkiye, we can seek his extradition or Türkiye can convict him. There is also such an important thing as the principle of universal jurisdiction, which is not in all countries but exists in many countries. According to this principle, a national court may prosecute a person for a crime against human rights or a war crime committed abroad, even though the person is a foreign national.
I will give the following example. Recently, there was the case of a Russian pilot who bombed Chernihiv. What he committed was a war crime, because civilians cannot be killed, it is a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention. This pilot fought in Syria, and there he also committed significant war crimes. The question is whether we can bring him to justice not only for war crimes committed on our territory but also in Syria. If we have the principle of universal jurisdiction then yes. We can condemn such people in our system. But it seems to me that it is better to transfer such war criminals to the International Criminal Court. Why? Because it will have a deterrent effect. Then potential war criminals from the Russian army will decide whether or not to commit war crimes, knowing that they can end up in The Hague.
It is also possible to condemn the war criminals, including the propagandists who incited war and genocide, in absentia. This was the case in Lithuania in 1991 when the Soviet Army killed dozens of people near a TV center in Vilnius. And only a few years ago the Lithuanian court began to consider this case. There were only one or two people in the dock and most in absentia.
A so-called press tour to Mariupol for international journalists will probably be organized by Russia. What is your opinion about it?
This press tour reminds me of a press tour to the White Sea Canal in times of Stalin’s rule, organized by the NKVD. Participation in this press tour to Mariupol is a matter of ethics. A journalist who adheres to journalistic ethics is unlikely to go on an organized trip controlled by Russian intelligence, knowing that he or she will not be shown what he or she wants to see on his own, but what he or she is allowed to see. Secondly, to go to the occupied territory, even from a legal point of view, you need the permission of Ukraine. If you go to the occupied territory without the permission of Ukraine, it is a corpus delicti. Therefore, Western journalists should ignore this.
And concerning the responsibility of the Western media outlets – should they hire Russian ex-propagandists as happened in the case with Marina Ovsyannikova who was hired by Die Welt?
The fact that the person worked at a Russian state-controlled channel is serious. At least employers need to know about this fact. It must be reported. This aggravates this person because it is a fact of complicity in the crime. I believe one should not give a job if a person worked for Russian propaganda institutions.
Ovsyannikova has allegedly left the Russian media, but it is difficult to erase all that long-term experience of complicity in propaganda in one step. When it all started, I remember how an American of Lithuanian descent who worked for Russia Today announced live that she was resigning. It was a courageous and timely step. Some things need to be done on time.
But when a person works for years and then accidentally takes such a step, sometimes it is not done out of conscience, but because the person realized that it is possible to get a better job in this way. One Soviet dissident put it this way: for some, dissent is a commodity that can be sold in the West but should only be produced in the Soviet Union.
“The decision of Die Welt to appoint a former editor of a Russian propaganda TV channel to speak about Ukraine, when Ukraine is fighting for the right to finally speak for itself and when it is absolutely necessary to increase journalistic voices from Ukraine and not from Russia, is outrageous. We think that with this decision Die Welt contributes more to the imperialist division of the world than to building a democracy in which each state has the right to its own voice.”
The signatories of the letter stressed that despite Marina Ovsyannikova emphasizing her Ukrainian roots and solidarity with Ukraine, she could not even pronounce the words “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian” correctly (she was making the wrong emphasis) and could not take responsibility for the war by her home country. They stressed that Ovsyannikova also speaks of the war as a “fratricidal” war between two “fraternal peoples” and thus spreads the Russian propaganda myth of the fraternal peoples of Ukraine and Russia.
The authors of the letter also pointed out that the fine she was given by Russian authorities (about 250 euros) was surprisingly small given the new Russian law on fakes, which has already entered into force in the Russian Federation as of March 14.
“In her text, ‘Russians are afraid’ Marina Ovsyannikova tells how humanitarian aid was organized for Ukrainian refugees in the Kaluga region but does not express any doubts about whether the goodwill of Ukrainian women and men ‘evacuated’ to Russia, does not mention a single word about the abduction and deportation. These and other gaps in Ukraine’s knowledge and understanding, as well as active participation in anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the past, have disqualified her as an expert on Ukraine.”
The letter is available in German and Ukrainian
We don’t know until the end whether what Ovsyannikova did is sincere or whether it was just a calculation to get “points” in the West. That’s why it’s hard for me to say anything specific here. But I doubt that the person suddenly became so enlightened now. The war has been going on for eight years. And it was clear to everyone for a long time. Moreover, her rhetoric after she left the Russian channel is weird, to be honest.
I remember what it was like in the PACE when many Europeans were in favor of dialogue. I said that Russia should be expelled, I said it many times. They shouted at me and said no, we are leaving millions of Russian citizens without the protection of human rights. We need to maintain a dialogue. And now the same rhetoric. It is as if innocent Russians are suffering, so sanctions must be lifted. The EU does not care that these people have a totalitarian mentality, but it is convenient to use such rhetoric to return to business as usual.
These are very cynical politicians, in my opinion. They do not recognize the fact that the majority of Russia’s population supports this war with great enthusiasm. Only 5% said they were ashamed. More than 50% said they were proud of the war. Sanctions should be applied to the whole country, because it is now like a totalitarian sect, unfortunately. It is impossible to convince them, they don’t want that. After all, there is the Internet, this is not the Soviet Union, where there were no alternative sources of information. There is every opportunity to learn, but they just do not want to.
Some people in the West do not believe the Russian polls saying that Russians are simply afraid to speak up about what they think.
This is a psychological mistake of an honest person. Because an honest person thinks everyone else is alike. And this person can’t imagine what Russians are capable of. The West lives in the 21st century, and the Russians live in the 19th century. It’s just a different level of culture. In 20 years, this Russian propaganda has led to anti-evolution. If you brainwash so intensively for 20 years, it will be a whole new generation with a totalitarian mentality.
Did you notice changes in Russian propaganda after the outrage of the full-scale war?
Russian propaganda has always been aggressive, but now it is out of bounds. In any society, there are some conspiracy theories. In a healthy society, they are marginal. But when these marginal ideas become mainstream, it is collective schizophrenia, a serious illness. Russian propaganda has no bottom. Russian propagandists are now promoting nuclear weapons. This is Putin’s latest argument for intimidating Western politicians.
Russian propagandists use so-called experts, but sometimes it seems to me that those experts are just sick people. In Russia, propaganda is now openly pathological, it has reached the level of Goebbels propaganda, the level of outright lies. Usually, you should at least try to make the lie look believable. Now Russian propagandists are not even trying, they are acting extremely aggressively and openly lying.
One of the goals of Russian propaganda seemingly was to make the West abstain from arming Ukraine because Russia threatened the West with nuclear weapons and attacks on NATO countries. The Western politicians and media were also talking about de-escalation.
The argument about escalation is the West’s favorite argument for not arming Ukraine. This is a very illogical and irrational argument. What is the escalation? We are already at war, what could be a bigger escalation? Secondly, the very concept of escalation is not clear. Here different people can have different opinions. If you ask people who mention escalation what exactly they mean, they will not be able to answer.
I was talking to my fellow French deputies. I told them that it was very easy to end the war. If you accept Ukraine into NATO now, the war will end because Putin is a coward. Look at little Estonia. Putin – he would very much like to attack Estonia. He would very much like to attack Latvia, but they are already in NATO. And he is afraid because behind these countries are 30 NATO countries, very powerful with nuclear weapons. He understands this.
I am sure if Ukraine was in NATO, this Russian aggression would not exist. That is why I say to both the Germans and the French that 2008, when you denied Ukraine membership in NATO, was a huge mistake, and you also have a certain moral responsibility because you opposed it. If we had joined NATO on time, the war would not have happened. Putin would not dare.
It is necessary to understand a very simple thing. Putin really only understands the language of power. He points out what countries are doing, not what they are saying and politicians. He is a provocateur; he makes a provocation and if there is a reaction then he does not go further. He saw that there was almost no reaction from the West, and he took the next step, went to eastern Ukraine. Only determination can stop him. If he sees that there is a determination to use force against him, he will stop.
Concerning nuclear weapons, I think Putin sees very well the West’s message that this is a red line and so do his generals. Admittedly, I did not believe that Putin would invade on 24 February; I was wrong. But here, too, I do not believe that he will use nuclear weapons. The issue here is not even in the West. If he does, even China will refuse any support, and he is afraid of that. Putin is afraid of being alone, he is counting on China. If China showed its position about the war, Russia could be restrained now. China has not done so, although it is also not interested in Putin seizing Ukraine, because it will strengthen Russia. And Russia is a source of resources in the long run. Not a friend, but rather an object.
The most important thing now is to stop Russia’s military machine. You can stop the military machine by stopping the economy. And you can stop the economy first of all by stopping the supply of oil and gas.
In terms of Russian propaganda, it is needed first of all to ban the operation of all state Russian channels. These are Sputnik, Russia Today, and others. Internet administrators also need to ban this propaganda, particularly on social media.
“We call for tougher sanctions on Russian institutions involved in disinformation, propaganda, and media manipulation, and for sanctions to be imposed on those involved in its development and dissemination, as well as on members of their families.
We urge the world media not to cooperate with former employees of Russian propaganda outlets and not to expose their audiences to the danger of falling victim to Russian psychological operations.
We call for an end to the broadcasting of Russian media via satellite systems, as such resources are used by Russia exclusively to pursue aggressive political, economic, and military goals of the Russian Federation, completely ignoring the need to adhere to standards of journalistic ethics. Instead, we urge satellite providers to involve Ukrainian broadcasters in their broadcasts.
We call on all media to refrain from spreading Russian propaganda narratives and not to provide a platform for Russian propagandists to spread lies and misinformation. We call on the administrators of social networks, video hosting services, and other media platforms to stop the spread of Russian disinformation and propaganda, to make additional efforts to verify information published on such resources for Russian lies and manipulations, and not to promote Russian propaganda and incitements for violence”
On 2 March 2022 the Council of the European Union announced that the EU will suspend the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT/Russia Today (RT English, RT UK, RT Germany, RT France, and RT Spanish) in the EU, or directed at the EU, “until the aggression to Ukraine is put to an end and until the Russian Federation and its associated outlets cease to conduct disinformation and information manipulation actions against the EU and its member states.”
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