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The war in Ukraine changed this week

Putin is lying to the world now just as Stalin did decades ago

Policemen and city workers load a vehicle Tuesday with bodies found in the Ukrainian town of Bucha after Russian troops withdrew.
Policemen and city workers load a vehicle Tuesday with bodies found in the Ukrainian town of Bucha after Russian troops withdrew. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, the war in Ukraine changed. People saw the bodies of murdered Ukrainians in unfiltered clarity. For many, it is likely the first time they have seen brutality at this scale. They are images that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. It was a transformational moment. 

As the world watches Vladimir Putin’s attempt to capture a country by destroying it, history is where we can find answers as we ask why the Russians would choose such a violent path and why the Ukrainians refuse to bend to his will.

It’s important to understand, first, that Russian aggression is nothing new.

Almost 100 years ago, in 1929, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin declared his own war on what was called the “nationalist deviation” in Ukraine and embarked on a genocidal mission to destroy “Ukrainian nationalism’s social base — the individual landholdings” of the peasant class. His plan was not complicated. First, take out the local political leaders, demand total obedience to his edicts from the peasants and use force to ensure submission.

He then went about the business of arresting thousands of Ukrainian political leaders, scholars and intellectuals, killing some and imprisoning others or exiling them to the gulags of eastern Russia. He then moved on to the land-owning peasants, kulaks, who were resisting Stalin’s plan to collectivize the nation’s farmland and confiscate its rich grain harvests and livestock.

For the next four years, Stalin and his henchmen systematically starved the Ukrainian peasants by demanding they turn over what amounted to nearly all their grain and livestock to his government or face imprisonment, even death. More than a million kulaks were evicted from their farms, some killed and others transported in cattle trucks to a harsh life in Siberia and other equally barren lands, left there with no food or shelter.

According to historian Alan Bullock, of the 14.5 million who died as a result of Stalin’s “dekulakization” policies across the Soviet Union, 5 million died from starvation in Ukraine, or about 25 percent of the country’s rural population. And while millions were dying, Stalin denied it all, punishing anyone referring to the famine with years in a labor camp. 

In September 1939, it was Poland’s turn to “reap Stalin’s whirlwind” when the Soviet Union, then allied with Hitler, invaded its western neighbor. Focused not only on subduing the Poles at the beginning of war but also his control after the war, Stalin employed brutal tactics to decapitate any potential leaders who could be a threat to that control, which included the Polish elite and officer corps. 

This time, his strategy was implemented by the NKVD, Stalin’s ruthless intelligence service, which would later become the KGB. The NKVD deported more than a million Poles to Siberia and rounded up thousands of Polish officers and other officials, marching them to camps in the Katyn Forest near the city of Smolensk in Russia.

It was there, in the spring of 1940, that the Russians murdered 21,857 Poles — including about 15,000 military officers — held in several camps, by shooting them in the head in execution rooms while marching others into the forest to their death and dumping their bodies in mass graves. When the Nazis discovered the graves in 1943, Stalin, now aligned with the Western Allied powers, blamed the Germans for the atrocities. Today we know them collectively as the Katyn Forest Massacre. 

It was not until President Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” that the Russian government finally admitted its guilt in what amounted to genocide, issuing a statement in 1990: “The Soviet side expresses deep regret over the tragedy, and assesses it as one of the worst Stalinist outrages.”

Stalin’s reign of terror ended with his death in 1953, but there were plenty of others ready to embrace his lethal methodology in order to gain and maintain power, using the most inhumane of tactics, including starvation. 

In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of Budapest, crushing the Hungarian revolution; in 1968, it was the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. 

Russia paid no price for either act of aggression.

Then, it was Afghanistan in 1979, and Chechnya in 1999, where the Russians turned its capital city of Grozny to rubble after the country declared its independence. 

Russia again paid no price. 

Nor for its invasion of Georgia in 2008 or the destruction of Aleppo in Syria in 2012. The Russians pounded the city with airstrikes that targeted civilians, schools and hospitals and effectively used starvation as a weapon to bring the city to its knees.

In an analysis of the Aleppo siege for the Carnegie Endowment, Swedish writer Aron Lund wrote, “Imposing starvation on civilian populations is a war crime, yet like most war crimes it is also very effective.” 

Now, the world is challenged by the Soviet government again as Russia wages yet another war on an innocent country and its people. Vladimir Putin’s career began in the Cold War of the ’70s in the KGB, the successor to Stalin’s NKVD, working closely with the Stasi secret police in East Germany. 

One thing is certain, given his recent actions, Putin is very much the product of the NKVD’s mentality and methods. Like Stalin, he is a man who clearly doesn’t value human life.

Ironically, as he bombards Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians in places like Bucha and Mariupol, shelling schools and hospitals as he has done before, Putin tries to blame the war on Ukraine, much as Stalin tried to blame the Germans for the Katyn Massacre. No one with any knowledge of history believes, as Putin claims, that his military is actually an army of “liberators,” freeing Ukraine from neo-Nazi oppressors and that the Ukrainians are manufacturing videos of the atrocities. 

Anyone who questions Putin’s willingness to sacrifice the people of Ukraine in his quest for power and land need only remember the millions starved to death in Ukraine or the thousands murdered in the Katyn Forest. Putin is lying to the world now just as Stalin did decades ago, fearing the consequences of democratic reform and values. 

The kulaks in 1930s Ukraine wanted the freedom to own and farm their land. The Ukrainians today want independence and the right to self-government, and they are willing to fight for it because they understand the alternative better than most. 

NATO and the West must decide what they are willing to do to stand with them.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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