The US could set a precedent for recognizing genocide so that the 9 million victims of the Holodomor can finally receive a degree of justice.
In 1932, the Soviet Union intentionally manufactured, exacerbated and, subsequently, covered up the mass starvation, execution and imprisonment of 9 million ethnic Ukrainians — a tragedy now known as the Holodomor. This heinous policy was an attempt by Joseph Stalin to crush the Ukrainian spirit of independence, as well as the identity of the Ukrainian people.
Unfortunately, despite considerable domestic support for the initiative — including the creation of a Holodomor memorial in Washington in 2015 — the United States is yet to recognize the Holodomor as genocide. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a decree defining the Holodomor as an act of genocide in 2006. America’s reluctance to officially do so is not only a foreign policy shortcoming, but also a moral failure of leadership. However, it is never too late to correct this egregious wrong. In fact, now is the optimal time for the US to renew efforts and formally recognize the Holodomor as genocide. Doing so would honor the victims, grant justice to the Ukrainian people, and improve the relationship between the US and Ukraine during a politically uncertain time.
The US-Ukraine relationship has been strained in the Trump era, starting with his campaign’s successful effort to modify the GOP stance on Russia and Ukraine in favor of the former. Then there are President Donald Trump’s various attempts to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently, the US-Ukraine relationship faced new pressure with the ever-growing revelations around Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman who lobbied for the now ousted pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. Such revelations have only served to create a degree of mistrust among both on the streets and the hallways of power in Ukraine toward the US, perceived as not having Ukraine’s best interests in mind.
The Trump administration and several members of the Republican-controlled Congress have been dogged by accusations of secret Russian support and pro-Russian sentiment. Admonishing Russia’s attempts to bury the Holodomor, such as by claiming the famine was systemic across the Soviet Union and not deliberate or suppressing any journalistic coverage of the tragedy, is an effortless way of pushing back against a delegitimizing narrative.
Moreover, on an international scale, bolstering a diminished image in regard to human rights serves Washington’s interests. President Trump and his administration have faced serious criticism about their commitment to the current world order and human rights. Supporting a formal recognition will bolster the United States’ standing while refuting the accusation leveled against Trump of being Putin’s unwitting lackey.
Recognition by the US would also play a role in pushing back against Russian disinformation tactics such as the historical revisionism and rehabilitation of Stalin, at a time when memory of Russian and Soviet rule seems to be fading in much of Europe and Eurasia. Specifically, countering the false narrative about Stalin and the Holodomor would be an important soft-power tool in Eastern Ukraine, helping divide Russia and pro-Russian separatists separatists from the populace under their control.
The US refusal to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide in the past has stemmed from pressing diplomatic needs such as defeating Adolf Hitler in World War II, easing tensions with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and resetting relations with Russia in the 1990s. Even now, some would likely argue that it would further damage relations with Russia. Yet Moscow has made it clear through its actions beyond Ukraine — in places like Syria and even the United States — that maintaining a cordial relationship is no longer in its interest. Russia’s efforts to exploit societal divisions in America, influence US elections and generally undermine the fundamental essence of democracy in America are well beyond the Cold War adversarial relationship and should abolish such concerns about future friendly relations going forward. Appeasement diplomacy toward Russia should be removed from consideration.
Recognizing the Holodomor as genocide is not without historical or even current support for Congress to build upon. In 1988, a US Commission on the Ukraine Famine reported to Congress that the USSR had committed genocide against Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. Sadly, this conclusion was merely an advisory that Congress did not then take up. Progress has been made at state level, with Washington State legislature approving a resolution calling the Holodomor a genocide and several more, like California, coming close. According to the Ukrainian Congressional Committee of America, schoolbook publishers are seeking to include the Holodomor in their textbooks. Congress can build upon such a strong base of momentum and support to jumpstart the initial effort for a recognition initiative.
It is finally time for the US to do the right thing and formally recognize the Holodomor as genocide. Aside from the obvious foreign policy benefits, pushing back against Russia and bolstering the United States’ damaged image regarding human rights, it is the morally right decision for the leader of the international community. The US can set a new precedent for recognizing genocide and, perhaps, the 9 million victims of the Holodomor can finally begin to receive a degree of justice.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
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