The new shock of Russia’s war in Ukraine: Genocide fatigue

Joseph Stalin was wrong about most things, but he was spot on in allegedly saying that “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The Russo-Ukrainian War provides ample evidence of the truth of Stalin’s remark.

We were shocked when the first Russian missiles struck Ukrainian cities. We were more shocked when Russian missiles hit an infirmary and a theater serving as a hideout for scores of children — in Mariupol, a city that was subsequently leveled. We were still more shocked when the Ukrainian armed forces uncovered mass graves in several towns north of Kyiv. Bucha, one of those towns, even became emblematic of Russian atrocities and therefore became an obligatory stop for foreign dignitaries hoping to express their outrage.

The Bucha revelations occurred in early April. Since then, our capacity for genuine outrage has visibly diminished. Missiles continue to strike civilian targets; Ukrainians continue to die; Russian leaders continue to boast of their genocidal intentions; the West continues to shake its collective head. In reality, however, our outrage is less outraged than it used to be. We’ve gotten used to daily reports of senseless death and destruction. We’ve gotten tired of following a genocide-in-progress.

That’s not too surprising. The ongoing genocide lacks drama. It lacks immediacy and overwhelming presence. Scores or more of non-combatant Ukrainians are being killed every day, and even though the numbers are still far from a million, they are progressively becoming more of a statistic than a tragedy. We are becoming jaded and increasingly unmoved by what seemed to be a river but is now merely a steady stream of death in Ukraine. Western press coverage illustrates this declining interest, with Ukraine moving from screaming headlines on page one to straightforward stories on pages three or four.

But jadedness is also a welcome condition, a happy relief, as it distracts us from an awful reality that our stated commitment to human rights should compel us to end. We all know that genocide is the ultimate crime against humanity. It can’t be excused, and it must be prevented. Theoretically, that is. In fact, we hope that genocides will just go away and stop interfering in our mundane affairs. Because the only way to stop a genocide is to employ some degree of force — whether economic compulsion or military interference. It’s far easier to rail against China for genocidal policies against the Uyghurs. Easier still is to look the other way, as did the Dutch peacekeepers while several thousand Bosnians were taken to Srebrenica to die — or the millions of Germans who pretended that the concentration camps were benign, or the millions of Russians who ignored Stalin’s repressions and the dire reality of the Gulag.

The world’s response to the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides was no less tepid than its response to the Holodomor, Stalin’s famine genocide of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933, and of course the Holocaust. The entire world knew of these and many other crimes and did next to nothing. No country stands absolved of some degree of complicity, both in committing crimes against humanity and in failing to respond to crimes against humanity.

The world’s current genocide fatigue is thus nothing new. The ongoing Russian extermination of Ukrainians for being Ukrainians should distress all of Russia’s sympathizers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, if only because it so strongly resembles their own colonial experiences. But it doesn’t, because they can pretend that the Russians are resisting American imperialism.

The Ukrainian genocide should positively outrage the West. After all, it challenges Europe both normatively and geopolitically. If Russia succeeds in slaughtering tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians without any significant opposition from the collective West, then the European Union, which claims to be a community of values, will be exposed as an amoral institution bereft of the right to laud liberalism, rule of law, and democracy and to oppose war-mongering, revanchism, and imperialism. Such a European Union will not survive long.

But indifference to the Ukrainian genocide will also herald the EU’s geopolitical irrelevance. If Vladimir Putin can get away with genocide, then the West will have signaled to him that he can target any other country and be assured of the West’s silence. That wouldn’t matter if he had no expansionist agenda, but since he hopes to reconstitute some form of imperial Russia, no country on the Russian Federation’s borders will be safe from Russian encroachments on its sovereignty — and that means Estonia and Poland as much as Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Unfortunately, genocide fatigue is so much more comfortable. One can claim to be concerned, while drinking beer and shrugging helplessly. Moreover, claiming that genocide is too strong a word for Putin’s barbarity is one way of pretending that things aren’t quite that bad. Hoping that negotiations with a sociopathic barbarian can produce a lasting peace is another convenient way of pretending genocide isn’t taken place.

But genocide fatigue won’t stop the ongoing genocide in Ukraine. It can only delay the ultimate reckoning and eviscerate the West.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”