KYIV — In Stansiya Luhanska, a small suburban town on the far eastern edge of Ukraine, the new day brought bombs. The town is in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government, crammed right against the front line that encircles the nearby separatist stronghold of Luhansk. On Thursday morning, an artillery shell crashed through the wall of a kindergarten, injuring at least three adults, while others slammed into the school’s dirt playground outside. The school’s children were, luckily, not in the room the shell hit.
The same morning but miles away, shells shook the city of Mar’inka, another frontline town near the separatists’ other main city, Donetsk. Residents captured the boom and crash of artillery on video, later telling Buzzfeed News that it was the most intense they had felt “in a long time.”
Similar violence surged across Ukraine’s front line in recent days, particularly on Thursday morning. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which monitors the conflict, recorded over 300 explosions on Wednesday, and is still tallying them for Thursday.
The wave of shelling has been accompanied by nasty, escalating rhetoric and diplomatic skirmishing. On Thursday, the Kremlin announced that it had expelled the number two U.S. diplomat in Russia, Bart Gorman, last week. The State Department confirmed Gorman’s departure, calling Russia’s decision an “unprovoked … escalatory step” in negotiations between the two governments. Moscow also delivered a hotly-anticipated response to the U.S.’s latest security proposal for the region, which claimed that the U.S. had ignored its prior core demands and vowed a “military-technical response,” while making even more demands of the Western governments and Ukraine.
There’s also a more sinister line of messaging from Russian state media: claims that the attacks were false flags, and renewed rhetoric that there was a “genocide” happening against ethnic Russian’s in Ukraine’s east. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said today that all of this adds up to one thing: the Russian government manufacturing a pretext for war. Blinken specifically mentioned a mass grave, drone strike, or terrorist attack being used. While the U.S. government’s narrative is never one to rely on out of hand, some of the methods Blinken described are already in use.
They're throwing everything for a potential pretext at the wall to see if it sticks. Here's a sample of headlines published just in the past hour from Russia-backed separatist info site, citing their "intelligence" agency. (All unconfirmed and dubious, to say the least.) pic.twitter.com/605tPg3r4m
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) February 17, 2022
While many of these potential plots and coups can be dismissed out of hand, some carry a deeper weight and a longer history in the conflict as a whole — and give some insight into the future of the current crisis.
On Tuesday, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the specific, and highly charged term “genocide” during a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, saying “what is now happening in Donbas is genocide.”
This rhetoric is in line with a long tradition of pro-Russian elements and the Russian government itself weaponizing the term “genocide” for political aims in the Ukraine conflict. In 2014, analysts Matthew Kupfer and Thomas de Waal wrote that pro-russian separatists were attempting to frame their struggle “as one against a regime attempting to commit genocide,” in order to “present their actions not as a first choice but as the last resort of a people trying to protect its fundamental human rights,” a narrative that was framed by other sources in Russia as part of a broader campaign of persecutions against ethnic Russians.
“Invoking genocide allows the Russian authorities to frame the Ukrainian government as ultimate evil,” Kupfer tells Rolling Stone. Claiming that Ukraine’s actions in Donbass amount to genocide, Kupfer says, “could be used to reframe a Russian invasions as something akin to a humanitarian intervention.”
But first, they’re looking to find — or manufacture — evidence for this. On Wednesday, Russia’s State Investigation Committee opened a criminal case investigating the existence of up to five mass graves in separatist-held areas of Ukraine; the committee’s statement claimed they were evidence of an attempt to “exterminate the inhabitants of Donbas.”
Oliver Carroll, a British correspondent who reported from the region for the Economist, Politico, the Independent, and others, saw some of these graves when they were created. Carroll tells Rolling Stone that he saw one set of graves outside of the city of Lugansk during a period of heavy shelling in the summer of August 2014. Intense fighting had cut power to the town and forced “anybody who could leave” out. The ones who were left were the elderly, the poor, and the infirm. Carroll says that the local morgue didn’t have electricity to refrigerate bodies, some of which were decomposing badly, so they were placed in hastily-dug “mass” graves. But at the time, Carroll says, this wasn’t hidden — it was just another sad reality of a brutal and bloody war.
“We all knew about that open grave,” Carroll tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t just stumble onto it – we were directed to it, the separatist authorities knew about it.”
But this horror and that of genocide are two different things, Carroll says. “They will find graves, they will find bodies, they may even claim to find evidence of war crimes. What they won’t find is genocide. Genocide is on a whole other level.”
This assessment tracks with other investigations into war crimes in the area. Like most wars, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been marked by grim, unconscionable violence on both sides. A United Nations report in 2017 found evidence of extrajudicial killings by both the Ukrainian intelligence agency — the SBU — and Russian-backed separatist forces, as well as darker campaigns of kidnapping, disappearances, and sexual violence. A 2014 Amnesty International investigation into Russian claims of mass graves — which Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at one point claimed held up to 400 bodies — unearthed “strong evidence implicating Kyiv-controlled forces” in at least four extrajudicial killings, as well as evidence of executions performed by separatist forces. “Amnesty International has not found or been presented with any compelling evidence of mass killings or graves,” Central Asia and Europe Program Director John Dalhuisen wrote. “What we have seen are isolated incidents of summary executions that in some cases constitute war crimes. These abuses must stop. All suspected cases should be effectively investigated and those responsible from both sides prosecuted.” But the investigation, Dalhuisen wrote, “also shows the extent to which accusations of abuses are being inflated, particularly by the Russian authorities, in the parallel propaganda war.”
That war is the one to watch now, as the Russian government appears to be doubling down in order to encourage its population to support a war and keep the option of violence on the table.
“Russia has to keep the threat of war credible,” Carroll says, in order to keep “all their options on the table” in Ukraine. “If you want to make a threat more credible, you escalate the threat — that’s pretty much been the Russians’ playbook thus far.”
But creating public consent for these actions may be a stretch, even for Russia’s powerful state media apparatus.
“This conflict has been on a low boil for nearly eight years,” Kupfer says. “I don’t think the Russian public is particularly riled up about Ukraine. I am skeptical that the Kremlin can use genocide rhetoric to provoke the kind of anti-Ukrainian sentiment and marshal the kind of support it had in 2014.”
Claims of genocide, shifting blame on civilian casualties, and allegations of drone strikes or terrorist plots all create the same thing: a shifting, confusing, extremely volatile media atmosphere that makes war more possible. The U.S., for its part, is still feeding rhetoric of its own — claiming that if Russia finds a provocation that sticks, they plan to invade in the coming days. As they have been before, these estimates may be overblown. But it’s clear that for each party to this already-bloody conflict, every realm and flavor of violence is still on the table.