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Why Putin is desperate to revive Russian memories of Nazis and World War II


He has already shifted most of the focus of its war to eastern Ukraine, pulling back its forces from near Kyiv to annexe the Donbas region and “liberate” the industrial port city of Mariupol.

The West has put Russia’s death toll since February 24 at as many as 20,000 – which is 5000 more than its armed forces suffered in Afghanistan over 10 years. It is regarded as an unprecedented level of attrition in modern warfare.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, walks through a scene depicting a Berlin street after capitulation in 1945 during a visit to a St Petersburg exhibition in 2020. Credit:AP

But, despite the steep cost in lives for both the Ukrainian and Russian sides, the Kremlin has doubled down on invoking twisted historical parallels to World War II to justify its invasion.

The Ukrainian government, Putin says with scant supporting evidence, is “openly neo-Nazi” and “pro-Nazi” or controlled by “little Nazis”.

It has cut through at home. A sinister slogan “1941-1945: We can do it again” has been increasingly seen around the country, often plastered on the bumper stickers of the overzealous, since Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“I think he will try to move from his ‘special operation’,” British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC Radio last week. “He’s been rolling the pitch, laying the ground for being able to say, ‘Look, this is now a war against Nazis, and what I need is more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder’.”

A Russian tank of the First Ukrainian Army rolls along a street in Gleiwitz, German Silesia, following the capture of the city by Soviet Forces, on February 5, 1945.

A Russian tank of the First Ukrainian Army rolls along a street in Gleiwitz, German Silesia, following the capture of the city by Soviet Forces, on February 5, 1945.Credit:AP

Ukrainian intelligence has claimed there are even plans to hold a Victory Day parade among the smouldering ruins of Mariupol, severely battered in the Russian onslaught.

In a statement, which has been rejected by the Kremlin, Kyiv said: “For this purpose, the city is urgently cleaning the central streets from rubble, bodies of dead and unexploded Russian ammunition”.

“A large-scale propaganda campaign continues, during which Russians will be shown stories about the ‘joy’ of local residents from meeting with the invaders.”

Some have speculated that Russian authorities might even parade captured Ukrainians – with Putin copying Stalin, who in July 1944 enraged Hitler by parading around 57,000 German prisoners of war through the Russian capital.

A Russian self-propelled artillery vehicle Msta-S rolls during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade.

A Russian self-propelled artillery vehicle Msta-S rolls during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade.Credit:AP

British military historian Sir Antony Beevor said Russia under Putin remains a “prisoner of its past”.

In an interview promoting his forthcoming book, Russia – Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921, the best-selling author said like Stalin and Hitler, Putin wanted to be feared.

”I would argue that no country is as much a prisoner of its past as Russia, as Putin’s distorted vision of history reveals,” he said last month. “His obsession with the ‘Great Patriotic War’ against Hitler’s Germany has indeed contributed to extraordinary blunders in its invasion of Ukraine and to a strange repetition of mistakes from the past.”

Beevor said Putin is determined that his legacy should be the rebuilding of the Russian Empire as it was during Soviet times.

Troops march during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade.

Troops march during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade.Credit:AP

“Convinced that the liberal West is decadent and weak, he believed shock-and-awe would achieve his ends. It was exactly what Hitler thought in 1941 before invading the Soviet Union, when he said: ‘Kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will collapse’.”

“That is the mistaken mindset of the dictator more than that of the professional general. In both cases, atrocities aroused a far fiercer resistance, not surrender.”

Long-time Kremlin watchers say the “Nazi” slur’s recent emergence shows how Putin is trying to use stereotypes, distorted reality and his country’s lingering World War II trauma to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

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Putin began referring to Ukraine as “fascist” in 2014 – long before his February invasion – in an attempt to frame’s Russia’s neighbour as a continuation of the Nazi era.

Scholars of genocide and Nazism from around the world said in an open letter after Russian tanks rolled across the border in February that the rhetoric was “factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive”.

While Ukraine had far-right groups, they said, “none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterisation of Ukraine.”

But the war in Ukraine has weakened the Russian military so dramatically that fewer soldiers and armoured vehicles will take part in the country’s Victory Parade in Moscow. There will be fewer tanks and self-propelled artillery vehicles, with an estimated 10,000 personnel, compared with 12,000 last year. And unlike most years, no foreign leaders have been invited to the parade.

Just 131 vehicles are expected to take part in the procession, which is considerably fewer than the Kremlin rolled out last year. A planned flyover of the parade with jets in a “Z” formation – Russia’s symbol for victory – will be done with outmoded MiG-29 fighters, not the country’s state-of-the-art Sukhoi fighter jets.

Before the celebrations, Nikolai Patrushev, considered by many to be Putin’s most influential adviser as head of his security council, gave a major interview to the government news outlet Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

He offered little commentary about the current military operation – apart from predicting “the disintegration of Ukraine into several states” – but provided a portrait of the Kremlin’s view of the world beyond May 9.

Western governments, he argued, would continue to aim for the “humiliation and destruction of Russia”. He predicted a “revival of Nazi ideas in Europe”, mainly because of the arrival of so many Ukrainian refugees. The “radicals”, he said, “have already found a common language with European fans of Hitler”.

While Putin has again threatened to deploy nuclear weapons, the US’s most senior intelligence figure said this week there was no “practical evidence” that Russia was planning to deploy nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine.

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CIA director Bill Burns, who took up the role last year, said that Putin was “stewing in a very combustible combination of grievance and aggression,” but had not yet moved to deploy the most severe weapons in Russia’s arsenal.

Burns warned that the second phase of the war – concentrated in Ukraine’s east – was “at least as risky” and perhaps “even riskier” than the first phrase.

He told a Financial Times conference that Putin was “in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose; so the stakes are quite high”.

“I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down still will enable him to make progress,” he said.

For Putin, a public declaration of all-out war would be a major domestic gamble as it would further link his political fate to the outcome in Ukraine. But he may already be in over his head.

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