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World War II Memories In Today’s Russia-Ukraine War – OpEd

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For Russia, Victory Day is a jubilant national holiday. Every year, on May 9th, a grand parade is held in the capital Moscow, on the Kremlin Square, celebrating Russia’s victory over the invasion of Nazi Germany. Though 30 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, the flag of the Soviet Red Army battalion that captured Berlin is proudly displayed during the victory parade. The stories of Leningrad and Stalingrad citizens defending against German blockade, Soviet T-34 tanks defeating German panzer divisions, seasonal protection of “General Winter” against German advancements are invoked as memories of Russians’ courage and valor.

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To Russians, the Victory Day represents a national pride that their “Motherland” triumphed over a mighty foe and liberated the world from the threat of fascism. It is such national pride that Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently invokes. Confronting the US and West, Putin would invoke the memories of WWII to rally political unity and to justify Russia’s foreign policy. For Putin, halting NATO’s eastward expansion into former Soviet Republics and establishing a multipolar order to preserve Russia’s regional hegemony is analogous to Russia’s past triumph in defeating foreign aggression and constructing the post-WWII order together with the US. 

Early this year, Russia invoked the memories of World War II again as it launched military operations into Ukraine. Branding Ukraine’s government as “fascists” for allegedly persecuting the Russian-speaking ethnic population (and citing the history of few Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with the German invasion during WWII), Russia has compared the prospects of Ukraine’s NATO membership and subsequent deployment of NATO forces into neighboring Ukraine as a recurrence of aggression against Russia. On Feb.24, 2022, under the pretext of achieving Ukraine’s “denazification” and “neutralization” and protecting Russian-speaking separatist provinces, Russia launched a “special military operation.” Had this military operation achieved quick success, Putin might have compared his victory to Russia’s past triumph at this year’s Victory Day Celebration.

Nearly three months after its start, the war displays a recurrence of memories of World War II. The irony, however, is that the celebrated memories of Soviet valor and resistance are shown not by Russian forces but from Ukraine. Just as the Soviets defended Moscow successfully from the German “blitzkrieg,” Ukrainians have defended Kyiv from Russia’s attempt to quickly take over Ukraine’s capital. Like “General Winter,” Russian forces are encountering “Rasputitsa,” a muddy spring season that impedes military advances. The cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv have resisted Russia’s blockade and have become symbols of Ukraine’s resistance, just as Leningrad and Stalingrad were for the Soviet Union. 

Though Russia continues to portray Ukraine’s government as a “Neo-Nazi” or as a “pawn” of the West, the irony is that Russian forces face similar challenges as the German military did during WWII. Even within the Russian-speaking parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, Russia has struggled to suppress the local population, who have further embraced Ukrainian national identity since the war. As the war turns into attrition, it has taken a heavy toll on Russia’s military and economic capacity. Even in the international arena, the Soviet’s past advantage is now displayed with Ukraine. During WWII, the US enacted a lend-lease program to deliver substantial equipment and aid to the Soviet Union, which the latter used to replenish its earlier losses and organize counterattacks. Today, the US and the West are increasing economic and military aid to Ukraine and pressuring Russia with stringent sanctions.    

With Russia’s Victory Day Celebration being held next week, the world is now observing what Putin’s message will be. Had the war forced Ukraine to comply with Russia’s objectives (Ukraine’s declaration of neutrality, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s territory), Putin might have proclaimed another victory for Russia. Even now, despite the military stalemate, Putin might proclaim successes on the battlefield. Putin, however, might also deliver a message emphasizing the security danger Russia faces, justifying the continuation of the war. Few analysts have suggested Putin might even discard the euphemistic description of a “special military operation” and declare a state of war for Russia, appealing to the Russian public for patriotic sacrifice, as they did in the past.

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How would Russians respond to Putin’s call for wartime sacrifices, such as the mass mobilization? Some analysts have predicted domestic resistance to the war will increase, threatening Putin’s regime. Other analysts have predicted that the state’s informational control over the war narrative and the fear of Russia’s defeat would persuade the Russian public to accept the continuation of the war. Despite different predictions, one important lesson from Russia’s history is that a military that perpetually loses in battles faces difficulty maintaining public support. Putin and the Russian military face a challenge in demonstrating successes on the battlefield to maintain the Russians’ support for the war. 

The Russian forces in Ukraine share one similarity with Soviet Red Army: both armies have experienced humiliating setbacks in the early period of the war. Stalin’s dogma and purges debilitated the Red Army’s effectiveness, contributing to near destruction from the German offensive. However, the Red Army learned from its defeats and, as the war progressed, improved combat capabilities. Today’s Russian forces face criticisms for their inadequate preparedness for war in Ukraine, while Putin has been criticized for underestimating Ukraine’s resistance and international sanctions. Could Putin and Russia learn from earlier military mistakes and have the resolve and strategy to improve their military performance?      

Should Putin aspire for his war to be remembered as a victory comparable to WWII, or at least not be remembered as a defeat similar to World War I, at least one lesson from Russia’s past should recur. An army that adjusts to the reality of the war to improve how it fights retains hope for a comeback. As a commander in chief, whether Putin will behave more like Stalin in adapting to military challenges, or behave more like Nicholas II, who did not, could profoundly impact the course of Russia’s future and the world.  

*Jong Eun Lee is a Ph.D. Candidate and is also an adjunct faculty at the American University School of International Service. Prior to this, he has served as a South Korean Airforce intelligence officer. His research specialty includes U.S. foreign policy, South Korean politics and foreign policy, alliance management, East Asian regional security.   

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