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The Week In Russia: Stalingrad And A 'Stupid, Criminal War'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) visits the Mamayev Kurgan World War II Memorial complex in Volgograd on February 2.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) visits the Mamayev Kurgan World War II Memorial complex in Volgograd on February 2.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Seeking to subjugate Ukraine through brute force, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned to the historic Battle of Stalingrad in an attempt to justify a war that has killed tens of thousands of people, engendered countless accusations of atrocities by Moscow's forces, and clouded his own country's future.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Another Time, Another War

As Russia marked 80 years since the end of the Battle of Stalingrad with gestures that seemed to focus more on the Soviet dictator than on the monthslong bloodbath in the city that bore his name -- putting up a bust, changing road signs, and invoking him in TV reports -- the Kremlin tried to turn a pivotal event long past into an analogy for its ongoing war on Ukraine.

In a February 2 visit to Volgograd, symbolically renamed Stalingrad again for the duration of the ceremonies, Putin predictably said that Nazism "in its modern form" poses a "direct" danger to Russia -- and just as predictably, but wrongly, suggested without evidence that the sources of this threat are "the collective West" and Ukraine.

But beyond death and destruction, the 1942-43 battle and the war Russia is now waging against Ukraine have little in common, and the attempt to draw parallels is riddled with obvious flaws.

The biggest: In Ukraine, Russia is on the offensive. That alone ruins the analogy, because at Stalingrad the Red Army was defending the country, trying to stop Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's forces from driving deeper into Soviet territory. The Soviet troops succeeded, and the tide of World War II was turned.

'War Crimes Literally From Day One'

By contrast, the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that Putin launched almost a year ago was unprovoked, and the fact that Moscow is on the offensive has stood out in horrific relief from the start.

"Russian war crimes began literally from day one of Putin's renewed invasion. [Human Rights Watch] documented the use of cluster munitions that hit a hospital and a preschool on February 24," Andrew Stroehlein, European media and editorial director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a Twitter thread on the group's work on the war since that day.

A wounded woman stands outside a hospital after the bombing of the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguyiv on February 24, 2022.
A wounded woman stands outside a hospital after the bombing of the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguyiv on February 24, 2022.

Stroehlein subsequently pointed out that the thread, which linked to dozens of HRW reports containing evidence of atrocities in both individual incidents of and broader trends, was not comprehensive.

"Russia has committed more atrocities than all the human rights groups in all the world could ever have the capacity to investigate," he wrote on February 1. "This is only a sample of the horror of Putin's invasion."

Of course, investigators and journalists are also documenting evidence of atrocities in what historian Sergey Radchenko called Russia's "stupid, criminal war."

Cities Destroyed

Russian attacks are killing civilians on a daily basis. On January 14, a missile struck an apartment building in Dnipro, killing at least 46 people. On January 29, at least one civilian was killed in strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, which has been pounded repeatedly since the invasion began. And on February 1, a Russian missile killed at least three people in Kramatorsk, a city in the Donetsk region.

The hospital that Human Rights Watch said was hit by cluster munitions on February 24, part of an attack that it said killed four civilians, is in Vuhledar, a coal town southwest of the city of Donetsk.

Nearly a year later, fighting there is fierce -- as it is in Bakhmut, a city that Russian forces have been pressing hard to take for months as they attempt to control the whole of the Donbas -- the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A Familiar Narrative

Bakhmut and other cities and towns in the Donbas are the stuff of images that evoke the Battle of Stalingrad: Jagged ruins jutting from rows of razed buildings.

Not to mention images that hark back more than 100 years, to the trenches of World War I.

Putin's claim that the Soviet Union's World War II allies are now sources of Nazi-style threats to Russia may sound bizarre, but it's not new: for years, he has been making similar assertions in speeches at the annual Red Square military parade marking the anniversary of the Allied victory over Hitler's Germany in 1945.

Stalingrad in 1943 -- or Mariupol in 2022?
Stalingrad in 1943 -- or Mariupol in 2022?

Now, with the war in Ukraine, he and other Russian officials are making these suggestions more directly, simply fitting the false claim that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis into the long-standing narrative -- repeated with increasing frequency as the Kremlin tries to portray Moscow as the victim of an existential war launched by NATO, rather than an aggressor seeking to subjugate Ukraine -- that the United States and the West are bent on tearing Russia apart.

The fact that Russia is on the offensive in the war against Ukraine also means Putin's claim in his Volgograd speech that Russia is "once again being threatened by German tanks" is inaccurate: Contrary to what the Kremlin tells Russians regularly, Western governments have made no threats to attack Russian territory or to help Kyiv do so.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 2012-14, wrote that "Putin's comparison of the Battle of Stalingrad with his current invasion of Ukraine is disgusting."

"What an insult to the Russians, Ukrainians, and other soldiers of the USSR who died to defeat actual Nazis in Stalingrad in 1943," McFaul wrote on Twitter.

That's it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report.
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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