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Putin Is Using Stalin’s Playbook to Rebuild the Russian Empire in Ukraine

T-84 Ukraine
A T-84 tank from Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn comparisons between his unprovoked war in Ukraine with the act of liberation. On September 30, when announcing the illegal annexation of four areas in occupied Ukraine, he claimed yet again to be freeing people from a purported ‘Nazi regime’ in Kyiv. The sham referendums used to legitimize his imperial outreach are nothing more than democratic tools used by authoritarians like Putin to blackmail, control, and expand influence in the face of a conflict that is not going his way.    

Upon closer look, Putin’s rhetoric of exterminating the Ukrainian nation and employing old ‘polling’ methods used by Stalin to expand the Soviet sphere make today’s Russia the antithesis of the rules-based liberal order where respect for territorial integrity, state sovereignty, and internationally recognized boundaries are sacred pillars. Putin’s Russia is still holding onto its fledgling status of a modern-day arsenal of imperialism, making it a dangerous pariah for Europe, transatlantic relations, and, ultimately the United States.

Images from today’s conflict are eerily similar to ones from the old Soviet playbook. Official reasons for invading Poland in 1939 were wrapped in liberation jargon to prevent the USSR – the cradle of international communism – from being labeled an aggressor on the world stage. With state authority deteriorating following the  Nazi German invasion of Poland, Stalin saw it as his duty to free and protect brotherly Belarusians and Ukrainians, and their property, from capitalism by restoring order in his neighborhood, giving birth to the modern Russian liberation myth.

Those witnessing the oncoming Red Army in 1939 compared it to an emaciated crowd of ravenous beggars resembling an Asiatic horde. Putin’s army is more a rabble than an elite fighting force. Russian troops looting electronics stores in Ukraine for washing machines and flat-screen TVs is nothing more than when Red Army soldiers pillaged Polish shops for such luxury goods as chocolate in 1939. Regions occupied by Russian troops are being ethnically cleansed, with as many as 1 million Ukrainians sent east. Residents of some occupied regions like Melitopol or the Donbas that took Russian passports are being pressed into military service. After 1939 when the Soviet Union forced everyone to register for internal passports, some 150 thousand Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Jews were drafted into the Red Army.

After World War II Stalin ingeniously reengineered Western practices of referendums and voting. Held under extreme political duress or at gunpoint with the most favorable outcome known well in advance, they solidified his territorial gains. Between 1945 and 1947 such sham elections in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland cast Central Europe into Soviet domination for over forty years.

Soviet ‘polling’ occurred at a time when two powers – the USA and USSR – came out of the Second World War the strongest. Then, the showdown for postwar cooperation and competition between West and East was Poland. Putin’s recent sham referendums in Kherson and Zaporizhia come at a time of military weakness and desperation to maintain imperial status. Today, Ukraine is the center of the showdown between democracy and authoritarianism.

Global communism was Stalin’s – and subsequent Soviet leaders’ – chief imperial tool. “Liberating” neighbors in the name of fraternal brotherhood masked true intentions of expanding the political sphere at the expense of eliminating all those deemed dangerous elements. 

Putin is guided by similar logic. His aggression against Ukraine is driven by a liberation narrative in the name of Great Russian chauvinism – what he calls ‘de-Nazification.’ The special operation launched on February 24 is another in a long line of Soviet neighborhood ‘peacekeeping’ missions – Poland in 1939, Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. By forcibly occupying parts of Ukraine, Putin operates by the old adage of taking back that which was torn away from Russia, but in his eyes remains Russian.

The Kremlin views Central and Eastern Europe in particular as a region in constant need of liberation from foreign influence – purported Nazis, NATO, the United States, or Western social and cultural trends in general. Such rhetoric relegates liberation to nothing more than an empty slogan or bitter catchphrase for unprovoked aggression against everything deemed an existential threat, providing Putin with a never-ending appetite for political and territorial expansion. This irrational behavior is dangerous for Russia’s neighbors, Europe, and the world. Putin pursues it because it’s his political life and legacy. Doing otherwise will destroy Russia’s imperial identity and strike a blow to ideas of geopolitically influencing its vast neighborhood.

Vladimir Putin made a strategic mistake in launching a war to liberate Ukraine. Neither were his troops enthusiastically welcomed as Kremlin propaganda claimed they would be nor did he resurrect Russia’s old imperial glory by armed expansion. Ukraine is now the West’s anti-imperial rampart. It’s turning into a political, civilizational, and cultural model for others (e.g. Belarus, Georgia, Moldova) caught in a geopolitical grey zone threatened by Moscow’s territorial revisionism. 

Leaning toward the West now more than ever makes it a promising alternative for democratic development in Eastern Europe and Russia itself. Ukraine is protecting the world from threats of a Putin liberation. Only with continued Western solidarity and military support will Kyiv’s victory on the battlefield be the nail in the coffin for Putin’s imperialism.

Pawel Markiewicz is a historian of 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe. He is executive director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs Office in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DrPMarkiewicz

Written By

Pawel Markiewicz is a historian of 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe. He is executive director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs Office in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DrPMarkiewicz. 

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    September 30, 2022 at 2:49 pm

    rules-based liberal order where respect for territorial integrity, state sovereignty, and internationally recognized boundaries are sacred pillars…???

    Where is that in the west? Europe has defiled their borders by allowing their people and culture to be trampled by tsunamis of economic migrants. In America the Govt tang the dinner bell with promises of money and status for economic migrants.

    So who is the west to chastise Russia for disrespecting borders and sovereignty when they don’t even respect their own.

    The west needs to sit down and shut up. This is about MONEY POWER and AGENDA. Not about borders and sovereignty. So please with that BS already

  2. Friend

    September 30, 2022 at 3:02 pm

    Well, the U.S. is fucked as of right now. This cold war will throw more than 250 million Europeans from 15 countries under the Russian bus . Each will have to surrender under the same nuclear threat. Putin doesn’t even have to nuke Ukraine, he could nuke Finland, or Poland, or Italy or Germany.
    And Those countries will come back at the U.S. with a vengeance. They WILL invade the US homeland.That’s been the plan all along, with the american carrier groups being nuked with tactical nukes of which there are several thousand against a whole 11 carriers in the US navy.

    What better reason and what better time you’d have than to switch to the Russian energy supplies than right now. The first line of defence is France because it’s the next nuclear power.
    But nobody’s attacking France, we’re going straight to America.

  3. TheDon

    September 30, 2022 at 6:19 pm

    Wow.
    20 Million Russians died under Stalin.
    Pray he’s not playing the same game.
    Russians I hope are as brave as the Ukranians and take on the 300,000 fighting released prisoners to take their country back.

  4. TheDon

    October 1, 2022 at 6:39 am

    The Ghost and Friend confuse emotions with reality. The Ukranians dont want Russian control and the war will continue, casualties both sides. The other countries are no different. Russias military isnt large enough to take the world. Romans,Greeks, many others in history tried to keep expanding, thinning out and eventually falling back to their original borders.
    Putins dream is misjudged as every expansion in history. It forces dependence on china, the poor performance of equipment may bankrupt many industries, the eu will find a new energy source, and no trading will bancrupt Russia. NK and China wont keep you financially stable. China needs water and farmland, and know where it is available.
    Who will you allie with they reclaim disputed land.

    Russians should overthrow Putin. 50000 losses is the beginning. Nations purposely limit missiles to the war area. That is easily changed but the nations are avoiding escalating the war by bombing Russian cities communications and energy sectors.
    Putin must go.
    (Of course XI might oppose that idea)

  5. cobo

    October 1, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    As I’ve stated before, NATO’s role of deterring aggression is obsolete. NATO needs to make war on its enemies. Transnistria and Kaliningrad are not simple exclaves; they’re forward deployed military outposts.

    The Soviet military and intelligence bureaucracies are still in place, so the old thinking still rules the actions of their institutions and dominates the mindset of the country. More than getting Putin out of office, this entire political/military structure has to be defeated and destroyed. The ethnic territories under the control of the Russian Federation should be liberated.

    In today’s world, The US and its allies need to fight in nuclear environments and the leadership needs to keep a steely eye on nuclear rivals. Leaving the choice to our enemies to lose the war or lose their entire civilization.

    The next generation of NATO trainers will be Ukrainians. Perhaps the next generation of NATO leaders will be Eastern Europeans. NATO, I believe, should expand its structure to other regions replacing the UN, which has proven incompetent and corrupt like the League of Nations before it.

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