War crimes and propaganda: war in Ukraine persists


Grant Tetmeyer/Iowa State Daily

A Ukrainian flag was tied to a statue in downtown Ames during a protest on Feb. 27.

Luca Neuschaefer-Rube

  • The Russian government recognized the separatist regions Donetsk and Luhansk before declaring war on Ukraine on Feb. 23. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky declared the state of war one day later. 


  • Russia has attacked many major Ukrainian cities including Kharkiv, Kyiv and Mariupol, a port city that has been encircled by Russian forces since February 24.


  • The war has resulted in more than 4.1 million refugees fleeing Ukraine and more than 3,400 civilian casualties, including more than 1,400 killed, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


  • Accusations of Russian forces committing war crimes, including rape and summary executions, have been raised by Ukrainians as well as different international organizations including Human Rights Watch. 


  • President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal,” “killer,” “pure thug” and a “butcher.” Biden also said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”


  • Ukrainian forces are winning back areas and cities, including the Kyiv area.


  • Peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations have been taking place, without substantial outcome.


Fights in Ukraine have been raging since the end of February, when Russian forces invaded the country, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties and millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country.


Western European countries, the United States and other countries have imposed sanctions on Russia to pressure the Russian government to end the war, resulting in increased gas prices.


Port city Mariupol encircled with civilians being trapped


One of the highly contested cities is the port city of Mariupol. Mariupol has been encircled by Russian forces since Feb. 24 and is likely to fall within days, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).


Scott Feinstein, assistant professor of political science, said that Mariupol holds a special place, being tactically useful not only because of its port but also because it connects the Russian mainland to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.


Ukrainian forces win back the capital city Kyiv


The capital city of Kyiv has been highly contested, with a lot of Kyiv’s residents fighting back. Russian forces have started to give up on encircling Kyiv on Saturday. According to the Ukrainian government, their forces were able to win back the whole city of Kyiv. 


“Irpin, Bucha, Gostomel and the whole Kyiv region were liberated from the invader” said Ukrainian Vice Secretary of Defense Hanna Maliar on Facebook, Saturday.


Accusations of war crimes


Accusations of Russian forces committing war crimes in Mariupol, including targeting civilians, hospitals and schools, have been raised by many, including European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy Chief Josep Borell.


“This is a war crime, a massive war crime, what’s happening in Mariupol,” Borell said to reporters. “The city will be completely destroyed and people are dying.”


Feinstein said war crimes are happening in most military interventions, with this war most likely not being an exception.


“Anytime there is people not behaving to Geneva Conventions, this is problematic for these larger civilian rights that we want to be protected,” he said. “Rarely does war stick to the rules, very, unfortunately. 


Andriy Palasyuk, a Ukrainian-born Ames Laboratory scientist, drew connections between Mariupol and the Holodomor, a famine that happened in 1932 and 1933 in former Soviet Ukraine and in the deaths of at least 3.9 million citizens. He said the three keywords of the Holodomor were genocide, famine and deportation.


“We see already two out of three presently being done. Genocide is right now happening in Mariupol and Cherniv,” he said. “Because civilians cannot escape they don’t have a choice, they are just being killed… deportation is also happening in Mariupol and was happening in Crimea.”


Ihor Hlova, also a Ukrainian-born Ames Laboratory scientist, expanded on Palasyuk’s point.


“Famine is actually happening in the cities that are surrounded,” Hlova said. “There is not enough food, not enough water, and Russians do not allow to go to these cities.”


Because of the war, Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave their country. All men that are 18-60 years old have to stay and join the war efforts. A lot of civilians are fighting on the Ukrainian side, while Russian forces consist of soldiers. With the war going on, more and more accusations of Russian soldiers committing war crimes have been raised by Ukrainians.


Vitalij Pecharsky, a Ukrainian-born distinguished professor of materials science and engineering, said Russian soldiers are killing civilians, destroying infrastructure, looting and raping.


“They come in, they say ‘You either do what we say or we destroy you’,” he said. “If you look at the behavior of the Russian army, it’s not an army. I mean, these are criminals, these are terrorists– they couldn’t even be called people.”  


With Russian forces withdrawing from the Kyiv area, evidence of war crimes has been found, according to Human Rights Watch. According to a Facebook post by Ukraine Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, 410 bodies of civilians, killed under the occupancy of Russian forces, have been recovered in the Kyiv region so far. 


Pictures of bodies lying in the streets of Bucha, some of them with their hands tied behind their backs, were spread on Sunday. Cases of repeated rape, summary executions and other unlawful violence were documented by Human Rights Watch.


European officials, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain, immediately called for new sanctions against Russia to be imposed at the beginning of the week.


More than 4 million Ukrainian citizens fleeing their home 


More than 4.1 million Ukrainian citizens have fled their country because of the war. Feinstein said that this number is going to increase for the foreseeable future, and wonders how European countries are going to respond to the influx of refugees.


“Will politicians play against refugees or are they able to rally people in support of them? Most likely they are going to use whatever they feel is most favorable for their outcome,” Feinstein said. “Right now we have this rallying effect around Ukraine, […] in many of these countries, but demographic change, at least most recently in Europe, is often used by political leaders as an opportunity to make gains, and usually it’s against the new minorities.” 


Ukrainian refugees have advantages when fleeing to European countries that refugees from other continents don’t have, Feinstein said. He said there is a much lower institutional barrier because Ukrainians have immediate passport access to other European countries. There is also a racial component that will have a positive effect on the integration of Ukrainians that other refugees from the global south don’t have, he said.


Russian propaganda leaves own population uninformed.


Olga Mesropova, a Russian-born associate professor of World Languages and Cultures, said that the Russian population has been disconnected from most independent news, resulting in most civilians consuming only pro-war coverage from sources that are backed by the Kremlin.


“I am deeply concerned that Russia is becoming more of an authoritarian state than the Soviet Union ever was,” she said.


Because of that, a differentiation between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian population is emphasized by most international organizations, countries and politicians. 


“It’s clearly authoritarian power that governs and provides Putin with legitimacy, not necessarily the power of the populace,” Feinstein said. “Largely he doesn’t need the will of the people to control the state and its actions, and he doesn’t have to be held accountable by them and he doesn’t have to necessarily inform them to hold on to power.”

Feinstein said the disconnect between Putin and his constituents leaves the population of Russia detached from any type of decision-making, therefore relieving Putin of his responsibility of informing them indiscriminately. 


Pecharsky said the Russian population is not guiltless in this development. He said he was appalled that Russians who lived in the Soviet Union became so compliant to Russian propaganda that only consists of lies.

 “Goebbels would be jealous,” he said.

 The Russian government has taken different steps to minimize communication between the Russian population and people outside of Russia. These steps include a law prohibiting the use of the word “war” in news coverage. Feinstein said this development is something that has been going on for quite some time, working away state institutions.


Solomiya Kovalenko, a sophomore majoring in statistics, said the propaganda is working. Due to that, many Russians who only consume state media have developed a negative image of Ukrainians.

“They don’t even think Ukrainians are humans, they literally think of them as outcasts [and] drug addicts,” she said. “They act like we are stupid.”

President Biden says Putin “cannot remain in power.”

After saying Putin could not remain in power in a speech held in Warsaw on Monday, President Joe Biden made headlines world-wide. A White House official said in a statement that was sent widely to reporters that Biden’s intent was to say that Putin could not remain in power over neighboring countries and regions and he did not intend to discuss a regime change.

“As we’ve seen, this has put [Biden’s] administration in a little bit of trouble internationally and domestically,” Feinstein said. “The problem though what we have in this case […] is that this is affecting the sovereignty of another nuclear great power in the world and essentially threatening their head of state and the sovereignty of the state itself.”

Biden’s speech was used as further evidence by the Kremlin to show that the West is pursuing the goal to create regime change in Moscow, Feinstein said. He said that this was one of the main reasons for Russia to invade Ukraine. 


Although President Biden’s comments on Putin garnered criticism from the Kremlin, direct involvement from the United States in the war in Ukraine is extremely unlikely, Feinstein said.

“One of the things that President Biden has said at the very beginning is they are not going to put US troops into Ukraine, and that seems a pretty clear hard line that is going to stay that way,” he said. 

The only development that could make the United States get involved in the war directly would be if Russia attacks a NATO country Feinstein said. Article 5 of the NATO charter, securing collective defense for all NATO countries, would be activated, obligating every NATO member to defend the attacked country.

Feinstein said he doesn’t expect Putin to trigger this involvement. He said that Putin has tested the unity of NATO, which has shown a strong resolve to take action against Russia if an attack would happen.

Peace talks without substantial outcomes

Ukrainian and Russian delegations have met for peace talks periodically since the beginning of the war. These negotiations are starting to show some signs of success. 

The peace talks have progressed to a point where a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky could be possible, David Arakhamia, head of the Servant of the People Faction representing Ukraine in the peace talks, said. Russian Chief Negotiator Vladimir Medinsky disagreed with Arakhamia on Sunday, having said that the Russian position in discussions on Crimea and Donbas remain unchanged, according to Reuters.

Because of the discrepancy, a meeting between the heads of state will not be an option according to Medinsky. Russia demands Ukraine to recognize the loss of Crimea from its territory.

Pecharsky draws a line to history, referring to Otto von Bismarck, when saying that the peace talks will not be able to end the Russian aggression.

“Bismarck said that any treaty with Russia isn’t even worth the paper it’s written on. It’s all true,” Pecharsky said.

Yaroslav Mudryk, a Ukrainian-born scientist at Ames Laboratory, supports Pecharsky’s opinion. 

“I think the real negotiations are going on on the battlefield,” Mudryk said.

Kovalenko said that Putin doesn’t want peace, but the land and control over Ukrainian people. “He is a psychopath,” she said. “To him, people dying, kids dying, mothers dying– they are just numbers to him. […] He just wants to go down in history as being infamous.”

The success of negotiations depends on Vladimir Putin being in a position of power, Feinstein said.

“The more resistance that he has, the more likely that he is not gaining the upper hand in Ukraine,” he said. “I think that does make it challenging for Russia to come to the negotiating table without having the upper hand in some of these situations.”

How can this war come to an end?

The war started Feb. 23, and as Russia continues its aggression, it is costing more and more casualties, especially civilians, causing officials from countries all over the world to look for a way to end this war. 

“Just like many people across the world, I am shocked and appalled by the senseless violence of this unprovoked war against Ukraine,” Mesropova said.

But ending the war will be very difficult because if there is more resistance, Putin’s ability for Russia to obtain becomes harder, Feinstein said. 


“The more money, the more military power that comes into Ukraine actually might prolong the war and continue to at least create more destruction within Ukraine itself,” he said. “It seems a difficult position for Vladimir Putin to end his military engagement in Ukraine without having a significant advantage, or at least obtain what he went in there to get.”

Even when thinking of the scenario of ending the war, a peaceful coexistence will be very hard to achieve, Kovalenko said.

“[Ukraine] needs to have their own protection against [Russia] and it has to be extremely rigid,” she said. “If [Russia] does something, then there are serious consequences, and it’s not going to be a little sanction.”


The Russian and the Ukrainian population have been closely connected, often through family bonds and friendships. To accomplish such a relationship again will be a long and weary process, if it is possible at all, Mesropova said.

“Having a connection to both countries is fairly common for many Russians,” she said. “I think it’ll take generations for any sort of real healing to take place. Ending the war would be a good starting point.”