“It’s impossible to say how many times they tortured me, because you lose all track of time,” a Ukrainian territorial defence volunteer called Oleh told
the independent pressure group Human Rights Watch. In the cells, he saw agents from the Russian FSB hit his colleague Denis Mironov with a rubber club until “his body just turned into a blackened mess”. This was in the
Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson on March 27.
Mironov died from a punctured lung. Their commander, arrested with
them, was found dead in a river, his body weighted with stones. None of
the three men was captured fighting. They had simply been identified as
potential sources of resistance by the Russian invaders and “neutralised”.
On July 9, after his release, Oleh (his name changed by investigators for his
own protection) told HRW: “I have concussion. I continue to have severe
headaches. All of our limbs were beaten… All of our backs, hips, buttocks, shoulders… were blue [from beatings]. Everyone’s kidneys had been beaten, so we peed pink.”
The report, issued on July 22, is just one snapshot, in one city, of the terror
inflicted by Russian forces during the attack on Ukraine. There are already
hundreds of such cases under investigation by human rights NGOs, as well as rapes and executions.
Meanwhile, between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia. Russia has brought a new level of dehumanisation to conflict in Europe.
It’s not just about the routine use of extreme violence against captured individuals. It’s about dehumanising entire peoples. The Ukrainians themselves have been denied legitimacy as a people, their language and culture slated for destruction. We, meanwhile, are firmly in the crosshairs.
On May 1, Dmitry Kiselyov, a senior host on Russian state TV, fronted a graphic sequence showing the UK and Ireland being hit with a 500m-high
tsunami wave, following the imagined explosion of a Poseidon nuclear torpedo in the Atlantic. Kiselyov fantasised that those not immediately drowned would be left trying to survive in a “nuclear desert”.
Those who study the far right have come to understand the role dehumanisation plays in fascist ideology: the philosopher Claudia Card described genocide as “social death”. It was not only the industrial-scale mass murder of the Jewish people that constituted the crime, she argued, but their systematic dehumanisation and exclusion from society, and separation from one another, resulting in an utter loss of freedom and control over their lives.
So it is important to understand the role played in the Russian war narrative by torture, rape, execution, the systematic denial of cultural identity. It is an advance justification, through symbolic violence, for genocidal actions – not just against Ukraine but against nations like ours.
Of course, it’s not 20 years ago that, in the aftermath of 9/11, western legal scholarship was swept up in a debate about the legality of torture. Law professor Alan Dershowitz argued that, since torture was being practised
in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the US should try to control it through “torture warrants”, legitimising the practice in extreme circumstances “while perhaps reducing its frequency and sincerity”.
And only this month, a BBC investigation alleged a rogue SAS squadron may have perpetrated up to 94 unlawful killings (ie executions) while deployed in Afghanistan.
So yes, wars are dirty – and there’s always a legal eagle on standby to justify shoving needles under the fingernails of defenceless captives.
But the Dershowitz debate was about the use of torture as a utilitarian device to extract intelligence against the “ticking clock” of further, imminent, terrorist attack. And the SAS allegations, were they to be proven, would lead to courts martial.
Russia is torturing people in Ukraine not to gain intelligence but to humiliate them, break them, intimidate them and, let’s face it, for kicks. If the message comes from above that all Ukrainian politicians are Nazis, that Ukrainian soldiers are to be regarded as subhuman, and that even protesters are fair game to be electrocuted and suffocated in the cells, this is a crime a whole order of magnitude greater in moral terms.
Yet we – the news media and the consumers of news media – have steadily normalised the existence of a torture state in Europe. Just as we normalised the existence of Trump; just as we’re normalising right now the idea of deporting refugees to Rwanda, with security guards pinning them to the floors of airliners.
We will regret letting torture become normalised. If you are in any doubt that the torture and destruction of Ukraine is just a practice run for the same routine to be used against Europe, you need to wake up.
When his spokespeople illustrate the mass death by drowning of the entire British people, they are revving up their own population for a war of destruction and self-destruction. They are willing our “social death” even as
they perpetrate it against occupied Ukrainian populations.
That’s why the fate of democratic Europe and the Ukrainians resisting Putin remain tied together. It should not be hard to get our heads around.
If Oleh’s city, Kherson, is liberated this summer thanks to the use of heavy weapons donated by Britain and the US, we should demand justice for the victims. I have nothing but contempt for those continually demanding Ukraine sign a ceasefire, and opposing weapons supplies to Kyiv, on the grounds that it will “make things worse”. Worse is what it’s going to get – for Ukrainians and for us – until Putin is defeated.