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The Past as Strategy – Russia and its use of history in the Ukraine conflict

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The Past as Strategy – Russia and its use of history in the Ukraine conflict 

Ever since events started to unfold in Ukraine in February 2014, it has been a point of contention what the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine actually are. It is also open to interpretation how the Russian government perceives the situation in Ukraine. This article approaches these questions by looking at the Russian rhetoric concerning Ukraine. The use of references to Nazism, to World War II and to genocide when the Ukrainian side is portrayed in Russian media or by official figures is a worrisome sign. It indicates that Russia is unlikely to – and probably even unable to – deescalate its conflict with Ukraine.

Pro-russian protesters in Ukraine. Photo Andrew Butko, Creative Commons

In early July 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a conference of Russian ambassadors and other foreign policy notabilities. During his address, which offered a tour-de-horizon of Russian foreign policy, Putin also related to Ukraine, indicating that foreign forces had long strived to control Ukraine and detach it from Russia. He stressed that the struggle over Ukraine had deep roots in history. Putin continued by defending the recent Russian annexation of the Crimea: “We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants; we could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited,” he argued. At this point, he switched to justifying Russian actions as having been triggered by an obligation to history: “we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area. This would mean giving up practically everything that Russia had fought for since the times of Peter the Great, or maybe even earlier – historians should know.” (My emphasis; Speech by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during the Conference of Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives, 1 July 2014, www.kremlin.ru). Earlier the same year, when addressing the Russian population in his annual call-the-president programme on Russian television, Putin used the term Novorossiya to describe the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, thereby indicating that these areas – due to their history - were not really parts of Ukraine.

This research essay aims to discuss Russia’s use of history in its strategy in Ukraine. I shall argue that Russia, in its information war with Ukraine, is employing a language that is fraught with explicit and implicit historical references, especially to World War II. I shall also argue that history is not merely employed as a rhetoric tool. Many such statements genuinely reflect Russia’s perception of the situation and appear to be in line with popular sentiments. This raises the question of how flexible is the current line of the Russian government? Is Russia increasingly becoming a hostage of its own rhetoric? If so, this may have very adverse effects on the international efforts to deescalate what is now an undeclared Russian war against Ukraine.

These questions are not merely of academic interest. On the contrary, when assessing the situation from the point of Western governments, it is vital to be aware of what is simply empty rhetoric and what are deeply held interests. In this text, I do not offer a comprehensive answer to these questions. The aim is more modest: to look at how history and historical references are used in official and semi-official Russian communication on Ukraine, and to gauge the implications of these references on Russia’s military actions on the ground.

Crying Wolf: Russian statements on Ukraine invoking historical references
It is important to stress that Russia’s concerns over Ukraine have typically been addressed by Russian politicians using a broad range of arguments. Russia has argued that the government that came into power in Kiev after Yanukovych fled the country in late February was illegitimate, and was established by means of a coup. Russia has pointed to Ukraine’s alleged breaches of its bilateral agreements with Russia, in the area of natural gas, for example. Russia has also claimed that the new regime in Kiev was heavily influenced by a combination of Western powers, oligarchs and extremist forces, primarily located in western Ukraine.  Claiming that there was an imminent threat to the well-being of the Russian-speaking part of the population, the Kremlin has justified its actions in the Crimea and more recently in eastern Ukraine. Indeed the threat from right-wing extremism has been portrayed as grave and immediate.

In line with that, one may find many official Russian statements pointing to a neo-Nazi treat in Ukraine and implicitly linking it to World War II. According to the March volume of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs White Book, “exhaustive” violations of human rights have been committed “by ultranationalist, neo-Nazi, and extremist forces”. The same forces were said to have “monopolized the Euromaidan protests” (White Book on Violations of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Ukraine. April 2014 — Mid-June 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 2014, p.5). Both this volume and a subsequent volume issued a list numerous examples of neo-Nazi activities, ranging from attacks on “anti-fascists” to disseminating of anti-Semitic propaganda (White Book on Violations of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Ukraine. November 2013 - March 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, April 2014).

After almost 50 separatist activists were killed on 2 May 2014, in an a fire that escalted during a street battle in Odessa, Russian State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin claimed that the violence constituted “a genocide against the Russian and Ukrainian people” (RIA Novosti, May 6, 2014). Several other officials and opinion makers made similar comments: ”What has happened […] brings to mind the crimes of the Nazis during World War II,” pro-Kremlin lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told reporters in Moscow, referring to the Odessa fire (Japan Times, 4 May 2014).  In the second white book on Ukraine issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such wordings may also be found. Here it is stated that the Government in Kiev is carrying out “the annihilation of people in the southeast [Ukraine]” (White Book on Violations of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Ukraine. April 2014 — Mid-June 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 2014, p. See also: Matthew Kupfer & Thomas de Waal, “Crying Genocide: Use and Abuse of Political Rhetoric in Russia and Ukraine”, 28 July 2014, www.carnegieendowment.org). Recently president Putin compared the Ukrainian government’s offensive against pro-Russian rebels in the towns of Slavyansk and Donets to the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II (Всероссийский молодёжный форум «Селигер-2014», 29 August, 2014, www.kremlin.ru). 

Why play the Nazi card?
In its use of public diplomacy and information warfare, Russia draws on an institutional legacy inherited from the Soviet Union. Both the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Soviet secret Services used warnings about Neo-Nazism as a rather crude propaganda tool. During the Cold War, authentic documentation from Soviet archives was frequently exaggerated and manipulated in order to discredit political figures and émigré circles in the West. Media campaigns were, for example, set in motion against the German politician Theodor Oberländer and general Adolf Heusinger (Philipp Christian Wachs, Der Fall Theodor Oberländer (1905-1998): Ein Lehrstück deutscher Geschichte, Campus Verlag, 2000). I would like to remark, in passing, that neither of these men were angels. Both were heavily involved in Nazi Germany’s war of extermination on the Eastern Front. Rather, my point is that in both cases, the Soviet Union carried out centrally directed and well-coordinated campaigns that mixed established facts with unfounded claims or outright falsifications. Likewise, the Soviet authorities tried to discredit Latvian émigrés in the United States by indicating that the members were Nazi war criminals en bloc (Andrew Ezergailis, Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Latvia: Daugavas Vanagi: Who are they?, Latvian Occupation Museum, 2005).
Looking at our own times, it is also interesting to note that diverging interpretations of the past has occupied a prominent place in the tense relationship between Russia and the three Baltic States since their independence (Eva Clarita Onken, The Baltic States and Moscow's 9 May Commemoration: Analysing Memory Politics in Europe, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 23-46). Russia also “played the Nazi card” during its 2008 war with Georgia. During the war, Russian state-controlled media on several occasions presented the Georgian armed forces as “Hitlerites”, and spoke of  then Georgian President Saakasvili as “a hysterical Fuehrer” (Paul A. Goble, “Defining Victory and Defeat: The Information War”; Svante E. Cornell & S. Frederick Starr (Eds.) The Guns of August 2008. Russia’s War in Georgia, M.E.Shape, 2009, pp.181-195). Such examples should be seen in the context of a considerable awareness of the threats and opportunities associated with information warfare in the Russian political and military establishment (Timothy L. Thomas, “Russian Information Warfare Theory: The Consequences of August 2008”; Stephen J. Blank et.al. (Eds.) The Russian Military Today and Tomorrow, Strategic Studies Institute, 2010, pp.265-300).

There is of course nothing peculiarly Russian in using history to argue one’s case and discredit one’s opponent. In Denmark, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in August 2003, used the sixty-year anniversary of the Danish government’s abandonment of the so-called “policy of cooperation” with Nazi Germany as a platform on which to justify Denmark’s participation in the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March that same year. What sets the Russian case apart are two things: First: The Second World War (in Russia: the Great Patriotic War) had an enormous impact on Soviet and Russian society. Around 27 million citizens died; the Soviet Union contributed decisively to defeating Hitler and to this very day the population of Russia remains rightly proud of the feats of their forefathers. Using terms as genocide, Nazi or fascist thus triggers considerable emotions. And equally important, whereas the Yeltsin period was characterized by vivid discussion of how to understand the experience of the Great Patriotic War (including much new scholarship based on previously closed archives), the present government has consistently attempted to block any discussion of the war’s less heroic aspects, such as Stalin’s deportations of nationalities accused of collaborating with the Germans, war crimes committed by the Red Army or that the much heralded Soviet partisan’s movement had very limited military value. Instead a one-dimensional interpretation of the war is being propagated (Johannes Due Enstad, “Putinistisk historiepolitik. Oppussing av fortiden i Putins Russland”; Nordisk Østforum, Vol. 25, No.4, 2011, pp. 321 344).

When Russia invokes the ghost of Nazism and alleges that neo-Nazi forces are a threat to the Russian- speaking population in southern and eastern Ukraine, it draws on Ukraine’s complex past. This is not the place to outline the history of Nazi rule in Ukraine 1941-1944. Suffice it to mention that Ukraine was marred by a not insignificant degree of local participation in the Holocaust (Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Also the history of a Ukrainian Waffen-SS Division and the possible crimes committed by its soldiers remains a controversial topic (Per Anders Rudlin, ‘They Defended Ukraine’: The 14th Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited. Journal of Slavic Military Studies, No. 25, 2012, pp.329–368; Sol Littman, Pure Soldiers or Sinister Legion. The Ukrainian 14th Waffen-SS Division, Black Rose Books, 2003).  On top of that, one may certainly find more than a grain of truth in press reports of a worrisome rise in xenophobia and anti-Semitism in contemporary Ukraine. Thus, when Russian politicians are using references to World War II when speaking of the current situation in Ukraine, they have a certain empirical platform for doing so. This is an important point; not only do allusions to Nazi crimes draw on strong emotions among the Russian electorate, but they also have certain credibility as they are not entirely unfounded.

Language matters – implications for the conflict
Russia’s use of a vocabulary consisting of Nazi references and accusations of its opponents preparing for genocide and ethnic cleansings is worrying for two reasons: First of all, it limits Russia’s role to that of a uncompromising hardliner – after all, how can the population first be told that the regime in Kiev essentially is illegitimate, extremist and even genocidal and next accept that a deal is struck with that very government. Secondly, it exacerbates the situation in Ukraine and stirs up ethnic hatred; be it between Russians and Crimean Tatars (who are seen as having collectively collaborated with the Germans during World War II) or be it between Russians and Ukrainians in the ethnically mixed areas of southern and eastern Ukraine.

As of the time of writing, Russian forces are present in considerable numbers in Ukraine itself and a new front in the direction of the Crimea seems to have been opened; possibly with the objectives of seizing a land corridor to the Crimea. Given the way Moscow portrays its opponents in the Ukraine, it remains to be seen how the part of the population that is not pro-Russian will be treated in these areas, if Russia’s land grab in southern Ukraine proves successful. The situation in former Yugoslavia, where politicians also stirred up campaigns of ethnic stereotyping for their own gain and, in turn, reaped ethnic cleansings, springs to mind. 

Further reading


About the author

Civilian researcher

Niels Bo Poulsen

Email: imk-ch@fak.dk