Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The truth of his observation is evident as the world struggles to divine how Putin will extract himself from the predicament he has created for himself without destroying the world in the process.
I am not Vladimir’s political advisor, but perhaps I can offer a suggestion of the course on which he may be embarked. Russia has hewed to the phony narrative that Ukraine is Nazi. They dismiss the inconvenient fact that Ukraine president Zelensky is Jewish by saying, as the Russian foreign minister has, that Adolf Hitler himself had Jewish blood.
When Putin launched his invasion, he cited de-Nazification as one of his goals. And, since then, Russian propaganda has repeatedly depicted the Kiev government as controlled by Nazis.
The city of Mariupol, on the Black Sea, where the most intense fighting has waged in recent days is defended by Ukraine’s Azov Brigade, which is accused by Russia of being Neo-Nazi in origin. The Azov force has battled heroically to defend a huge steel mill In Mariupol that is so heavily fortified that the Russians have been unable to subdue it.
But they are trying their best. Putin could be timing his attempts to take Mariupol to coincide with May 8th (VE Day) — celebrating the 77th anniversary of Germany’s conquest in World War II? Could he be planning, in the usual massive celebration in Moscow, to announce the successful de-Nazification of Ukraine with the capture of Mariupol?
Might he then declare that his invasion has accomplished its objective and pull his troops out?
Or, more darkly, if the Azov Brigade refuses to yield, might Putin strike their steel mill redoubt with tactical nuclear weapons, a strike he would attempt to justify as a necessary step in de-Nazification?
While the global community could be expected to be fierce in their reaction to a nuclear strike, exiling Russia from the planet, the Russian people might buy the explanation.
When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Ukraine was his first target because of its proximity to the border of what was then the Soviet Union. Embittered by Stalin’s deliberate starvation of many millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, vast numbers of them rallied to the German side. It was only several months later that they came to realize Hitler’s goal was not to liberate Ukraine, but to kill millions more to make room for the growing population of Germany, saying he needed Lebensraum (Living Space). The Ukrainians turned on Hitler and mounted some of the most successful and deadly guerrilla resistance fighting of the war.
(Stalin decided that he needed to depopulate Ukraine and force its small farmers, called kulaks, onto collective farms so that he could re-locate many of them to the cities to provide a labor force for his efforts at crash industrialization of the Soviet Union. His tactic was to send troops onto the small kulak farms to confiscate their harvest as it came in. This caused mass starvation that murdered many millions)
But the memory of Ukraine’s initially pro-Nazi stance remains a staple of Russian propaganda. In Ukraine, as Faulkner said about the American South “the past is not past. In fact, it hasn’t even passed.”
So, the narrative of de-Nazification will strike deeply into the memory banks of millions of Russians and retroactively justify — to them — the invasion and even the use of nuclear weapons.
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