A significant question for responsible, moral people around the globe is “Why is Putin attacking Ukraine?”
Many have written on that subject and tried to explain Putin’s motivations based upon a self-serving and erroneous view of history and cultures. But no analysis provides a justification.
But beyond the question of the war itself the degeneracy of the conduct of the Russian war is beyond the grasp of the human soul. How often do we ask ourselves or have others asked in disbelief, “Why are the Russians torturing and slaughtering innocents?”
The Russian behavior is horrific and beyond explanation, but we must know and acknowledge it is a reoccurring evil. As we – hopefully – get serious and absorb the reality that Putin’s war and objectives extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders we need to internalize the depth of evil we face.
In the first article below “The sadness of Sloviansk” Timothy Snyder recounts the depravity of Russian lies and behavior in 2014 to stimulate support for the unsupportable war and depraved Russian behavior.
In the second article “The Souls of Katyn – and -Bucha – Weep” George Weigel discusses the Kremlin’s used and reused template for murder and lies in the name of Russian national security from the Katyn forest in 1940 to the atrocities of Russian troops these last five weeks.
“[T]he same Stalinist methods of lying and spewing disinformation have been deployed anew by Vladimir Putin, his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and the evidently shameless Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya.” All made even worse by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow hypocritically saying, “we have no desire for war or doing something that could harm others,” it is only that Russians rally to their country’s defense “in the way that only Russians can defend their country.” The only way they know is attacking a peaceful neighbor and slaughtering innocents? You have said more perhaps than you intended Mr. Patriarch.
The wickedness that is the Russian war must be stopped and defeated in Ukraine.
There has been mention of peace negotiations, negotiated settlements and similar naïve dreams. Such an ending is not acceptable and would be a historic failure. The Russian bear must be defeated in Ukraine – now.
There is no mystery as to what Ukraine and the people of Ukraine need to win the war and defeat Putin. What they need must be shipped and delivered – now.
Announcements from Washington and other capitals saying what is being provided need corresponding announcements from Kyiv that those shipments have been received. There needs to be transparency so the world knows what is happening.
Timothy Snyder, April 12
The saying goes that truth is a casualty of war. That is so. Thus when Russia attacked the railway station in Kramatorsk, killing fifty civilians, Moscow first boasted about and then denied the strike. But sometimes it is the lies that bring about the war in the first place.
So it is with the city of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk’s neighbor in the Donbas. Eight years ago, Russian forces tried and failed to hold Sloviansk. If the current war proceeds as expected, Sloviansk will soon be a Russian goal again. As a regional transportation hub, Sloviansk is of some strategic significance. But its real meaning in Russia’s war is as the backdrop for an enduring and powerful fiction.
When Russian forces retreated from Sloviansk last time, in July 2014, Russian media spread a notorious lie about Ukrainian atrocities there. That specific piece of propaganda can help us to understand the ideology behind the war now (and anticipate Russian propaganda to come).
By 5 July 2014 the Russians had withdrawn from Sloviansk. Six days later, on 11 July, the Russian army began to shell the Ukrainian army in the Donbas -- from the territory of the Russian Federation. The next day Russian media distracted from both of these events with an outrageous lie. The most important channel on Russian television told an entirely invented story about a non-existent three-year-old Russian boy crucified by Ukrainian soldiers on Lenin Square in Sloviansk.
This tale seems to have been the creation of the Russian fascist intellectual Alexander Dugin, who had published it on social media a few days earlier. Dugin is a believer in what he calls "archetypes," foundational cultural constructs, can be deployed to allocate guilt and innocence. Thus the calculated choice of a defenseless small child as the victim and the crucifixion as the method of killing.
Nothing about the story was true, and it was refuted by independent Russian journalists. There is no Lenin Square in Sloviansk. The image nevertheless quickly became established. Years later I was still asked about it in Europe and the United States.
With the vivid fiction about Sloviansk, Russian television had staged, for a domestic audience, a classic reversal of perpetrator and victim. A horribly lethal series of artillery barrages from Russian territory were obscured. Not long after, the regular Russian army would enter Ukraine in force, establishing the Russian domination of parts of the Donbas that it controls to this day. Its soldiers referred specifically to the Sloviansk lie as their motivation. They said they were in Ukraine “for the children.”
Inside Russia, the artillery attacks and the invasion of July 2014 were not reported. Instead, the imaginary figure of the non-existent crucified boy was used to define Ukrainians as Satanists, Nazis, and so on. The axiom that Russia is always innocent (a small crucified boy) and the associated pathos is present now in Putin's speeches about this war.
Indeed, this notion of permanent innocence became one of the bases for the official Russian hate speech, deployed consistently against Ukrainians for the last eight years. These images associating Ukrainians with depravity have been pervasive for much of the lifetime of the Russian soldiers at war in Ukraine today. This is presumably one of the reasons Russian soldiers have killed so many Ukrainians civilians in the zones that they have occupied.
The Russian missiles that struck Kramatorsk a few days ago, killing children, were labeled "for the children." This is where the inversion of perpetrator and victim leads. Actual children have to die because of a myth of Russian innocence, which seems to remain unbroken regardless of what Russian leaders or Russian soldiers actually do.
Sloviansk was drawn into unreality, into a larger Russian story, one in which Ukrainians were the aggressors and Russians the defenders. In order to prove that story true, Russia must now try to take Sloviansk again, must pursue an insane war of destruction. That can only kill more people in Sloviansk, more Ukrainians generally, more Russian soldiers.
If the Russians take Mariupol, or when Russian forces start an offensive in the Donbas, we will likely hear more fictions. This time around, Europeans and Americans are less naive about Russian media than we were in 2014. It is in Russia that the older fictions have had the most enduring and profound effect.
The lies of 2014, far from helping Russia to win an easy war, have ended up drawing Russians themselves into a harder war, and one that they could lose. The big lies told back then have become bigger with time. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were and are the first victims, but in the end Russia itself has fallen into the mendacity trap it set for itself.
When we ask about the causes of today's war, we should not forget yesterday's lies. Yesterday's clever invention is today's article of faith. And today's article of faith is tomorrow's storming of Sloviansk.
Published April 5, 2022
When Soviet Russia, then an ally of Nazi Germany, invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, it quickly helped complete the vivisection of the Second Poland Republic, which disappeared from the map of Europe, its eastern parts being absorbed into the USSR.
In addition to considerable territory, Soviet troops captured some 8,000 Polish military officers, all educated professionals serving in reserve units, who ought to have been treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. In addition, the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland netted some 6,000 Polish police officers and 8,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia, all of whom were imprisoned in camps. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, knowing that these men constituted an elite whose work would be essential to rebuilding an independent, democratic Poland after the Second World War, deemed them a “threat” to the USSR. So he dealt with them in a singularly brutal way in April and May 1940. They were massacred, some 23,000 of them: one by one, each shot in the back of the head, his hands having been previously tied behind his back.
While the Russian mass murder of Polish officers and intellectuals took place in several locations, these executions are referred to as the Katyn massacres for the Russian forest where many of the shootings took place, the victims’ bodies being dumped into mass graves. Stalin lied about all of this, of course, assuring Polish General Władysław Anders, who was gathering an army to fight the Germans after their invasion of the USSR in June 1941, and the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, General Władysław Sikorski, that all Polish officers captured by the Red Army had been freed, even though the Soviets had “lost track” of some (they were said to be somewhere in Manchuria).
In late 1942 and early 1943, German forces discovered the mass graves of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest and reported their discoveries to Berlin. The Soviets continued to prevaricate, claiming that the massacres had in fact been carried out by the “German-Fascist hangmen”. When prime minister Sikorski demanded that the sites be investigated by the International Red Cross, Stalin upped the ante of prevarication, accused the Poles of collaborating with the Nazis, and broke off diplomatic relations with the London-based Polish government-in-exile.
The Soviet secret intelligence service, the NKVD, then proceeded to try and cover up the massacres it had carried out. Soviet propaganda continued to insist that the murdered Poles were German victims: lies that were swallowed by some gullible Americans. The American and British governments, loathe to annoy “Uncle Joe” Stalin, did not press the case – a reticence that continued at the Nuremberg trials in 1946.
Blatant falsehoods and disinformation about the Katyn massacres continued for decades, and secret police records were destroyed to further cover-up the fact that these mass murders have been solely a Soviet project. Yet a 1959 letter from the head of the KGB (successor of the NKVD) to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, detailing the execution of tens of thousands of Polish officers, somehow survived. Finally, in 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet and NKVD responsibility for the murders. Documentation on the massacres that had not gone up the smokestack in the destruction of NKVD records was given to post-communist Polish officials and scholars, and the Katyn catastrophe has now been thoroughly documented.
Today, it would be hard to find a Polish town that does not have a Katyn memorial; major cities have several. And many Polish churches have plaques commemorating the victims, with the Virgin Mary cradling a Polish officer, in the back of whose head is an unmistakable bullet hole.
If all of this seems alarmingly familiar, it is because the template for this wicked combination of murder and lies is being replicated today. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been justified as a defense of Russian national security, just as Stalin’s absorption of Poland and summary execution of more than 20,000 future leaders of an independent Poland was deemed essential to Russian security. The exact same kind of barbarism displayed by the NKVD in 1940 has been on display in the actions of Russian troops over the past five weeks. And the same Stalinist methods of lying and spewing disinformation have been deployed anew by Vladimir Putin, his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and the evidently shameless Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya.
Ukrainian civilians, including old men, have been shot in the back of the head after their hands were tied behind their backs, their bodies left on the streets in Bucha, a town near Kyiv. Mass graves have been uncovered after Russian troops retreated from areas they previously held. Russian propaganda blames these war-crimes on the Ukrainians they regularly dub “Nazis,” adding the refinement of doctored videos on social media to their armamentarium of dissembling. (These clumsy efforts have been thoroughly discredited by the BBC and other media not known, before February 24th’s Russian invasion, of being particularly hard on Russia and its president). The gullible of 2022 swallow these exercises in mendacity, just as the gullible did in the 1940s and beyond.
The brutality of Russian troops in Ukraine bespeaks a deeply wounded political culture, as does the pathological lying of Russian leaders. Yet as the Bucha massacres were being graphically displayed to a shocked world, the slim hope in some quarters, which seem to include the Vatican, that the leadership of Russian Orthodoxy might help heal those sicknesses was further dashed.
On April 3, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All ‘Rus celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Resurrection Cathedral, the principal church of the Russian military. There, he attempted once again to explain Russian actions in Ukraine as a defense of the “Fatherland,” against the “colossal influence of one force…which opposes the force of our people.” The patriarch then made matters worse by opining that, while “we have no desire for war or doing something that could harm others,” Russians would rally to their country’s defense “in the way that only Russians can defend their country.”
As they did in Katyn in 1940. As they have done in 2022 in Bucha, in the now-destroyed city of Mariupol’, and elsewhere throughout Ukraine.
The souls of the victims of the Katyn Forest massacres must be weeping. What happened to them is happening again. Or as William Faulkner once put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).
*Please note, the introductory comments are Mr. McConnell's words and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network.
Coordinator, External Relations
U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network. He is Principal of R.A. McConnell and Associates. Previously, he has served as head of the Government Advocacy Practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Vice President – Washington for CBS, Inc, and Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. email@example.com