The writer is a former Russian minister of foreign affairs and author of ‘The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy’
I grew up in Moscow believing that Ukrainians were people just like everyone else. I learnt that the call by the government of the Soviet Union for the people to rise up against Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1941 opened with the words “brothers and sisters”. That, of course, included both Russians and Ukrainians.
The people did rise up, suffering gravely and contributing decisively to a final victory in the second world war, achieved together with the US, Britain and France. When, later, I worked in the UN department of the Soviet foreign ministry, I took pride in the fact that the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia were founding members of that global organisation, along with the USSR itself.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, about 90 per cent of Ukrainians, including majorities in Crimea and Donbas, voted for independence in a referendum. I was proud to be a member of the Russian Federation government that honoured that choice. And it was my duty and privilege to design a structure for neighbourly relations between Russia and Ukraine, and in 1994 to write, together with US colleagues, the Budapest memorandum that provided security assurances to Ukraine. In exchange, Kyiv undertook to give its nuclear weapons to Russia and did so in short order.
That personal background should help to explain why what has happened to Ukraine since 2014 matters so deeply to me. In March of that year, President Vladimir Putin used troops from the Russian military base in Crimea to annex the peninsula. This was a brazen violation of Russia’s obligations under the Budapest memorandum. Regrettably, America responded with a diplomatic reprimand and flimsy sanctions. Encouraged, Putin seized parts of Donbas. Again, the US and the west expressed disapproval, but practical measures were restricted to ineffective sanctions.
For eight years Russia consolidated its gains, while the west, especially Europe, hid behind the mantra that the Minsk agreement, designed to secure peace in Donbas, should be implemented.
Then, on February 24 this year, Russian troops began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But this time Putin’s gamble on a weak response from both Kyiv and the west proved wrong. After meeting stiff resistance, desperate and demoralised Russian commanders resorted to terror tactics, including indiscriminate bombing and the targeting of civilians.
Kremlin propaganda tries to connect the invasion of Ukraine with the “Great Patriotic War” fought by Russians and Ukrainians against Hitler’s Germany. They dubbed the administration of Volodymyr Zelensky, the freely and fairly elected president of Ukraine, “Nazi”. Moscow euphemistically calls the war a “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine from Nazism and to return it to the Russkiy mir, a vaguely defined zone of Moscow domination bound by the Russian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch has blessed the invasion.
Now, the Kremlin is preparing to portray this operation as a successor to the war against Nazism at the traditional second world war Victory Day parade held on May 9 in Red Square in Moscow.
Putin has in fact succeeded in establishing a connection with the Nazis — but through his own deeds, not by slandering Kyiv. Consider these similarities between Russian aggression today and Hitler’s war of conquest in Europe after 1939.
A dictator has ordered the invasion of foreign territory for his own self-aggrandisement. He has done so unprovoked by the country being invaded, pursuing his aims in violation of both bilateral and international agreements.
The invasion is justified on the basis of false claims of historical and ideological or religious supremacy. A myth is propagated according to which the victims of aggression are in fact being liberated from oppression — communist in Hitler’s case, Nazi in Putin’s. And the military has acted barbarically, attacking the civilian population, destroying property and valuable cultural heritage.
A grand display of the Russian military in Red Square and the false “anti-Nazi” justification of its aggression in Ukraine is a blasphemy against the memory of the Holocaust and of the dozens of millions murdered in the second world war.
The seats reserved for foreign diplomats and dignitaries should remain vacant. This would send a powerful message to the millions of Russians who will be watching the parade on television.
Source: Financial Times