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Assessing Putin’s Prediction of ‘Srebrenica’ in Donbas

FRANCE - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference after a Normandy-format summit in Paris, France, December 9, 2019

On Dec. 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin reported to his Presidential Human Rights Council on the results of the previous day’s Normandy format talks between himself and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also attended those talks, which were originally established in June 2014 in an effort to end the five-year war in Ukraine’s Donbas region that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Ukraine has demanded that control over the country’s eastern border with Russia be returned to Kyiv. Addressing that issue, Putin said: “The amnesty law still hasn’t been passed. While the Ukrainian side keeps insisting: ‘Give us the opportunity to close the border using our troops.’ But I can imagine what would happen next. There would be Srebrenica, as simple as that.”

The amnesty law Putin referred to was from the Minsk II agreement between the two countries, which states:

“Provide pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine.”

Although it is true that this has been a sticking point in the Minsk process, Putin’s reference to Srebrenica, the 1995 mass killing of Bosnian Muslims, which former U.N. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called “the worst on European soil since the Second World War,” is much more controversial.

Bosnia-Herzegovina - Potocari Memorial Centre for Srebrenica genocide victims, opened in 2003.
Bosnia-Herzegovina - Potocari Memorial Centre for Srebrenica genocide victims, opened in 2003.

The threat of mass reprisals and atrocities against “Russian speakers” in Ukraine has been a major part of Russian propaganda since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and throughout the war in Donbas. In service of this narrative, Russian media has on more than one occasion spread fabricated stories about atrocities allegedly committed by Kyiv’s forces.

One of the most infamous of these stories was that Ukrainian soldiers crucified a young Russian boy on a billboard on a public square in Slovyansk after retaking the city in July 2014. A woman described as an eyewitness spoke on a Russian state media news program about how she watched the brutal killing of the boy and his mother. No evidence was presented apart from Pyshniak's statement given to a correspondent from Russia's state-owned Channel One network. Within 24 hours the story had been debunked by independent Russian media outlets such as TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta. The “eyewitness,” Halyna Pyshniak, was in fact married to a man who had joined the pro-Russian forces. In another case from October 2014, the Russian TV channel REN TV displayed what it claimed were bodies extracted from a “mass grave.” In fact they were victims of the MH-17 airliner crash.

To be sure, international human rights watchdogs have criticized the Ukrainian government over violations during the war. For example, a Human Rights Watch summary noted that “both sides in the conflict carried out indiscriminate or deliberate attacks on schools and used them for military purposes.”

While it is impossible to predict what might happen after Kyiv reasserts control over the territory, currently occupied by Russian forces and their local proxies, past events belie Putin’s suggestion that thousands might be massacred.

In early July 2014, Russian-led rebel forces retreated from the city of Slovyansk and fell back to their stronghold of Donetsk without contesting control of a number of towns they had taken that spring. The Ukrainian military quickly reestablished control over those towns without any credible reports of atrocities or reprisal against residents.

On the other hand, evidence was uncovered of atrocities committed by the “rebels,” including at least one mass grave found in Slovyansk with as many as 20 bodies, including four members of a local Protestant congregation.

Ukraine -- A local woman greets Ukrainian soldiers in central Slovyansk, July 15, 2014
Ukraine -- A local woman greets Ukrainian soldiers in central Slovyansk, July 15, 2014

In addition, since the Minsk II agreement was reached in February 2015, civilians from the Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have moved across the line of contact on a daily basis. Due to a near-total Ukrainian blockade of the separatist-controlled territories, these citizens must return to government-controlled territory to conduct routine business like using the banking system and collecting pensions. While this certainly caused hardship for Ukrainian citizens in the areas ruled by Russian proxies, it is not the behavior one would expect of people fearing massacres like those that took place in Bosnia.

Granting a blanket amnesty to those who initiated and participated in the war in eastern Ukraine is a very sensitive political issue in Ukraine. Most countries, Russia included, prosecute or even kill the leaders of armed uprisings against the government. Granting amnesty to such people in Ukraine would be particularly problematic given that Kyiv has already submitted to the International Criminal Court evidence of alleged war crimes by Russia and its proxies.

On Tuesday, Dec. 17, Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Chairman of the working group on the reintegration of temporarily occupied territories of the Legal Reform Commission Anton Korinevych, clarified his government's position on the question of pardons.

"The issue of amnesty is important, and it will emerge one way or another, but we in the working group understand that we can't talk about amnesty when we we talk about war crimes, crimes against humanity, when we talk about other serious human rights violations. Neither amnesty, nor pardon, nor other procedures can be applied in such cases," Korinevych told a correspondent from the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.

The desire to prosecute individuals responsible for atrocities is not comparable to what happened in 1995 in Srebrenica, where nearly 8,000 unarmed people, mostly men and boys, were killed en masse by Serbian militias.