Russian violence toward Ukrainians is often described as a pivotal tragedy, not just because it is the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II and threatens to upend the idea of a rules-based world order, but because it involves both the indiscriminate and targeted killings of civilians. So how should Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be categorized? The obvious answer is “war,” which comes with its own criminal implications (i.e., war crimes). But can Russia’s war also be classified as a hate crime against Ukrainians? The simple answer is: yes, and it should be.
Among other things, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing atrocities provide an ongoing and highly publicized case to evaluate a hate crime based on political beliefs.
A robust case can be made that an impetus for Putin’s attack on Ukraine is its citizens’ commitment to democratic values — exemplified in recent years by the country’s fitful progress as a fledgling democracy — and that they are targeted on the basis of their democratic identity.
Existing international commitments to human rights are inadequate to describe and address this violence because they do not include hate crimes with political beliefs as a protected class. In the case of Ukraine, Putin and his proxies should be charged with hate crimes as well as war crimes. Calling out hate crimes as such provides a more accurate lexicon to discuss this type of unprovoked violence and supports the victims as well as the broader target group of such crimes. Examining how Russian aggression constitutes a hate crime provides a more nuanced understanding of the stimulus behind the invasion of Ukraine, which should inform how the international community responds to the current crisis. A hate crime determination in the case of Ukraine would also lay the groundwork for prompting a necessary advancement in international human rights legislation that would facilitate a more impactful international response to hate crimes based on political beliefs, whether they are committed by actors in Russia, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere.
WHAT ARE HATE CRIMES?
A hate crime is a threat or act of violence that is motivated by the perpetrator’s bias toward a characteristic — whether real or perceived — of the victim. According to law enforcement, policymakers, and researchers, crimes conducted out of hatred and bias are objectively more dangerous to victims and society. These crimes are also more likely to cause residual trauma because the perpetrator targeted the victim based on some aspect of identity, rather than by chance or circumstance. Hate crimes attack who a person is, in addition to the direct harm inflicted. And there is not just one victim, but many; hate crimes cause broader, secondary harm to the wider community that shares the characteristic that motivated the crime. Hate crime laws are additive in that the perpetrator can be charged with the act of violence (for example, assault) as well as with the bias motivation that makes it a hate crime (for example, political beliefs). These are just a few reasons why legislating hate crimes is important.
Enacting hate crime legislation in the United States and elsewhere has advanced slowly over the years. As it stands, US hate crime laws at the federal level cover perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. It was little more than a decade ago that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 broadened the scope of hate crimes to this extent. Prior to the Shepard Byrd Act, a handful of narrow statutes supplemented the first hate crime legislation created by the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
On a global scale, the International Bill of Human Rights and other international agreements include the freedom of thought and belief and enjoin parties to protect citizens from various forms of discrimination, but there is no agreed definition for hate crimes at the international level. However, at the regional level, the 57 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — which includes Russia, Ukraine, and the United States — in 2003 collectively recognized the dangers of hate crimes and committed to combating them. All OSCE member states include race as a protected class in their national-level legislation. Some members’ laws also cover religion, sexual orientation, and gender. Importantly, a few also already cover political belief or affiliation. As it happens, Article 63 of Russia’s own Criminal Code defines aggravating circumstances of a crime as those motivated by “political, ideological, racial, ethnic or religious hatred or animosity, or by hatred or animosity towards any social group.”
The foundation of democratic values is the freedom to have a voice in determining the destiny of your governance system, as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and other related documents describe; as such, support for a democratic form of governance goes beyond simply a belief in a particular political position to become an intrinsic part of one’s identity. In addition, academic research indicates that political beliefs and the related political party connections create a stronger bond than that of race, religion, or ethnicity.
WHY THE INVASION IS A “HATE CRIME”
President Vladimir Putin’s espoused rationale for invading Ukraine was to protect Russian speakers from genocide and “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian government. Other theories from external commentators abound as to the motivations of Putin’s actions, including fears of NATO enlargement, concerns over spheres of influence, and Russian irredentism and revanchism. While one or more of these dynamics is probably at play, a robust case can be made that an impetus for Putin’s attack is Ukrainians’ political affiliation as the country progresses as a young democracy — a determination that carries significant implications.
Currently, we lack the specific language to accurately characterize authoritarian silencing of political threats or repression of citizens’ expression of political beliefs at home or abroad; these should be considered hate crimes.
The key element in categorizing a criminal offense as a hate crime is the perpetrator’s motivation. Putin has long denigrated Ukraine’s independence and culture but close consideration reveals that the primary bias driving the invasion is centered on political beliefs. A review of Putin’s experience and attitudes toward democracy using the Department of Justice’s findings on typical characteristics of hate crime perpetrators and their motivations support the case that Russian actions toward Ukrainians constitute a hate crime:
- Existing biases: Putin’s distaste for democracy stems at least in part from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, in which democracy activists played a key role and which he publicly described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.
- Negative personal experiences: Putin’s personal grievance against democracy includes his traumatic experience as an intelligence officer stationed in East Germany in 1989, where he saw firsthand the consequence of the pull of democracy when the Berlin Wall fell.
- Exposure to stereotypes and hate-filled discourse: Putin has decried the “decadence” of democracies and vaunted Russian values as superior.
- Engagement in scapegoating: in Putin’s view, the hardship that “Russians experienced during the 1990s were not the result of decades of communist neglect and widespread theft but of Western-style capitalism and democracy.”
- Poor or uncertain economic conditions: As of late 2021, features of Russia’s economic picture were weak economic growth, stagnant incomes, pervasive inequality and poverty, and human capital challenges such as a shrinking and aging working-age population.
- Resentment toward growing economic power: Democracies tend to have better economic indicators and standards of living than Russia, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, and media coverage of Russian soldiers in Ukraine impressed by indoor plumbing and looting kitchen appliances to send home has highlighted Russian wealth inequality.
- Reaction to a perceived threat to physical and economic safety and belief in a mission to rid the world of some perceived evil: Putin and Russian elites view democracies as a threat to their power, prompting Russian efforts to bolster illiberal allies abroad, and they see pro-democracy advocates as troublemakers in cahoots with established democracies such as the US and EU countries.
As for timing, the bias-motivated attack began with Putin’s initial 2014 invasion after Ukrainian citizens demonstrated in support of a democratic, European future and the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove the Russia-backed President and schedule new elections. These events followed a decade of political strife following the Orange Revolution. In other words, Ukrainians’ commitment to democracy — with all its fits and starts — was genuinely taking hold; as of 2017, 84% of Ukrainains wanted Ukraine to be a fully functioning democracy.
In the current conflict, the actions of Russian forces have caused nearly 10,000 civilian casualties since February 24 and indicate more than just a disregard for Ukrainian lives (or, one could say, Ukrainian voters). They appear to target civilian structures, including homes and hospitals, suggesting the bloodshed is intentional, not the collateral damage of war. Atrocities such as those in Bucha show a savagery that may in part be crimes of opportunity, but — as one of the first outlying areas of Kyiv to be invaded — might also be a message to the Ukrainian government and its supporters that their pro-democracy views put them directly at risk.
Since 2019, Russia has distributed passports en masse, a move that bolsters the argument that Russian aggression is targeting the remaining population for its democratic values. The passports provide a way to easily identify who wants Russian citizenship and, therefore, does not prioritize a democratic future in Ukraine. Eighteen months after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, most of the more than 1 million refugees had entered Russia and, days before the 2022 invasion, Russia-backed separatists announced an evacuation of occupied territories for those willing to go to Russia. As a result, Russian forces could presume — for the sake of expediency — that, by the launch of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the remaining inhabitants of Ukrainian territory who do not hold Russian citizenship are pro-democracy.
THE NEED FOR AN INTERNATIONAL LAW
Existing international commitments to human rights are inadequate because they do not include hate crimes, let alone those motivated by a bias toward a political belief. Addressing this gap would acknowledge and underscore the serious nature of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and carry multiple implications. Fundamentally, this move would create a lexicon that is recognized and understood internationally to help identify politically-motivated violence, protect victims, and improve capabilities to prevent it. Currently, we lack the specific language to accurately characterize authoritarian silencing of political threats or repression of citizens’ expression of political beliefs at home or abroad, whether stemming from actors in Moscow, Riyadh, or elsewhere. For example, one could argue for a hate crime determination based on pro-democracy political beliefs in the case of Moscow’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny and Riyadh’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
In addition, a hate crime designation would enable actions that help to alleviate the flow-on effects of this type of violence, beginning with sending a message to Moscow and others that hate crimes based on political affiliation will be called out as such, and that perpetrators will be held accountable. Such a move would help victims heal; hate crimes are unique in that their consequences extend beyond the violent act, as the perpetrator’s motivation intends to diminish and denigrate the victim and the victim’s identity.
The designation would also limit the fearmongering that hate crimes are intended to instill in broader members of the target group beyond the primary victim, which is precisely what is happening as unease grows in other newer democracies, particularly Moldova and Georgia, as well as Baltic and Central European states.
In addition, a hate crime designation would help to curb victim-blaming, which the OSCE’s hate crimes manual notes is a risk with hate-motivated violence, and which we have already seen via theories that attribute Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as instigating Russia’s behavior.
Finally, applying a hate crime framework helps facilitate a more nuanced understanding of Russian aggression toward democratic political beliefs domestically and elsewhere and of politically motivated hate crimes perpetrated by others that will help to inform how best to stop the current onslaught and prevent it from happening again. With the former, the hate crime assessment of Russian actions toward Ukraine suggests a more deep-seated antipathy toward those holding democratic political beliefs than simply wanting to restore the Soviet Union or guard against NATO enlargement. This hostility portends a long-term effort needed to protect those who espouse democratic values from potential Russian aggression.
Even without a clear path forward on bringing Russian officials to trial on hate crime charges, among others, the benefits of expanding and recognizing violence based on political affiliation as a form of hate crime are clear and multiple — for Russian actions toward Ukraine and other hate crimes like them.
Marguerite Benson is the Founder of Sticky Wicket Advising, a consultancy focused on geopolitics, technology, and national security, and has been involved in Ukrainian issues for 20 years. Prior to consulting, she spent more than a decade as a public servant, primarily at the Central Intelligence Agency. Marguerite studied the role of Russian influence on Polish-Ukrainian relations as a Fulbright Fellow in the early 2000s and served as an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitor in Ukraine for the presidential elections in 2004 (based in Ivano-Frankivsk), which sparked the Orange Revolution, and the parliamentary elections in 2006 (based in Crimea). She earned post-graduate certificates in Political Psychology from Stanford University and in Ukrainian Studies from the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute as a Foreign Language and Area Studies Scholar, where she won the Senkowsky Prize for Achievement.