The story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is infused with World War II flashbacks — references to Nazism and fascism on both sides, the same toponyms from 80-year-old war dispatches, remnants of the strategic and tactical schemes developed for last century’s battles, even the role played by the HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems that’s reminiscent of the 1942 success of the Katyusha MLRS, known among Germans as Stalinorgel, the Stalin organ.
Among the nastiest echoes of the bygone great war is the treatment of prisoners in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
There’s evidence that in the spring, in towns such as Irpin and Bucha, Russians summarily executed prisoners suspected of cooperating with the Ukrainian military. In July, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners died in an explosion at a camp where they had been kept; the Russian side blamed a Ukrainian HIMARS strike, while Ukrainians insisted the damage was inconsistent with this version and spoke of Russian revenge on the heroic defenders of Mariupol among the victims. Most recently, fingers have been pointed at the Ukrainian side in two equally disturbing incidents: the return in a prisoner exchange of a Russian convict who apparently had voluntarily surrendered to the Ukrainians and what appears to be an execution of at least 11 Russian POWs in Makiivka, in the Luhansk region.
The convict, Yevgeny Nuzhin, had been among the many recruited by the Wagner private military company in Russia’s penal colonies, no doubt with the Kremlin’s permission. While in captivity, he gave interviews to Ukrainian journalists claiming he planned from the start to surrender and fight on Kyiv’s side. Then, a video of his extrajudicial execution by unknown Russians — with a sledgehammer blow to his head — surfaced on Telegram. It transpired that he had been traded to Russia in a prisoner exchange. An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy claimed Nuzhin had agreed to be exchanged.
From Makiivka, videos circulating on social networks show Russian POWs lying on the ground, first alive and then, soon afterward, killed — apparently at close range. The Ukrainian side says it’s investigating the incident, but officials, including a presidential aide and Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, also have claimed that the Russians had been shot because they only pretended to surrender, as a Russian soldier emerged from a nearby building and opened fire and the others may have attempted to flee.
It’s clear why both of these stories, given the right spin, play into the Kremlin’s hands: They contravene Zelenskiy’s explicit guarantee of humane treatment for Russian POWs. But Western media have done the right thing in reporting the hard facts despite their potential value to Russian propaganda. Truth about the war must be told, even if it doesn’t fit the glossy narrative of Ukrainian elves versus Russian orcs.
Part of that truth is that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not a gentlemanly one — and, as it goes on, the likelihood diminishes that it will ever be prosecuted according to any humanistic rules or conventions.
The facile explanation would be that this is a war between two post-Soviet nations with powerful gangland traditions overlaid on a long history of POW mistreatment, dating back to the Russian Civil War, which followed the 1917 revolution and was fought in many of the same places as the current conflict — and, of course, to World War II, when Russians and Ukrainians were part of the same, often unimaginably brutal army.
The Soviet Union did not recognize the Geneva or Hague conventions on POWs but had its own written, humane POW policy, which Soviet propaganda often used to induce Germans to surrender — in the same way as Zelenskiy has done for Russian soldiers. But the real-life rules were handed down by Joseph Stalin himself. “Don’t believe prisoners of war too much,” the dictator told one of his top commanders, Georgy Zhukov, according to the transcript of a conversation quoted in Australian historian Mark Edele’s “Take (No) prisoners! The Red Army and German POWs, 1941-1943.” “Investigate them under duress and then shoot them.”Summary executions of German prisoners were often framed as retaliation for Nazi atrocities. Stalin’s representative on the Crimea front, Lev Mekhlis, wrote to his son in 1942: “In the city of Kerch up to seven thousand corpses of civilians (including children) [were found], all shot by the fascist monsters… One’s blood runs cold from anger and the thirst for revenge. I order the killing of the fascist prisoners.”
Needless to say, Ukrainian Telegram channels are full of similar emotions following reports of Russian atrocities and the devastation that the invasion has wrought — but neither that nor the brutal gloating at Ukrainian deaths on Russian Telegram is evidence of a specifically Russian or Ukrainian culture of prisoner mistreatment. Indeed, some US soldiers during World War II were sentenced for killing prisoners — and claimed that they had acted on direct orders from General George Patton, an accusation that didn’t stick at the time but survives to this day. Edele wrote:
“Wartime barbarism does not rely upon a preexisting ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’ of violence, upon political religions dehumanizing the enemy, or upon dictatorships forcing their soldiers into battle. The dynamics of warfare itself, if not checked by politics, law and morality, tend toward greater and greater force, and prisoners (or, for that matter, civilians) are not excluded from this maelstrom.”
The dynamics Edele refers to are those of revenge for accumulated wrongs. In June through September 1941, according to official statistics cited in Edele’s work, the Soviet Union took an average of 77 German POWs a day; in October through December, that number dwindled to 27, even as Soviet military fortunes turned somewhat for the better and Nazi troops were being pushed back from Moscow. The longer a war goes on, the heavier the mixture of nervous exhaustion, emotional hardening and hatred for the enemy that causes the mistreatment of prisoners. And, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in its ninth month now — we’re just about at the point where the Soviet soldiers in World War II appeared to get tired of taking prisoners.
World War II was, in hindsight, a conflict of blinding moral clarity, a war of good and evil. In the current conflict, too, there’s hardly any doubt as to which side is in the right. The war is being fought on Ukrainian territory, the country has been devastated, and it still fights on for the right not to live under the Putin regime. Yet while good and evil will look sharply delineated in history books, the warriors of good and evil are muddy, angry, exhausted soldiers in hopeless trenches and burned-out forests. They can only take so much before they become indistinguishable from each other — and once they do, historians record it, too, if only as an aside to the dominant narrative.If these asides make for hard reading, it is because they speak to an abiding ugly truth: War, just or unjust, is inhuman — and the more so the longer it goes on.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Will Russians Choose Truth or Lies? Ukraine’s Fate Depends on Them: Andreas Kluth
The Wishful Theory of ‘Strategic Russian Defeat’: Leonid Bershidsky
Vladimir Putin’s Guide to Alienating Allies: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
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