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Russia/Ukraine: painful history as ugly propaganda…

August 31, 2015

Summary: History isn’t past. It seems the favoured insult in the Russia/Ukraine propaganda war is to accuse the other of being in the SS…

Russia and Ukraine have been provoking each other with accusations and insults coming from the 1940s.

The Russo-German war of 1941-45 was surely the most brutal part of a brutal world war. It seems still to be under-analysed by Western historians, who focus on Mediterranean, Pacific and north-west European campaigns which are presumably easier-to-research.

On the Russian front it was not just the millions of soldiers, employing tens of thousands of tanks, artillery and aircraft, to wage unrestrained warfare over a vast area, it was the appalling range of atrocities, committed on both sides.

A central aspect of this latter history of atrocity was the role of Hitler’s elite formations, the Schutzstaffeln (“defence echelon”, or “protection wing”) – most notoriously known as the SS.

I do not intend to do a detailed study of the SS here, or the Russian Front, for that matter, but just to sketch in the important background. The force expanded from an initial role as a series of Nazi bodyguards and ceremonial troops in the 1930s to a fighting role, in the vanguard as shock troops, known as the Waffen (ie armed or weapon)-SS. These forces combined the cream of Germany’s indoctrinated youth with the best military hardware.

Russia and Ukraine, both parts of the Soviet Union at the time, fought against the Nazi invasion and suffered casualties on a horrific scale.  As the war progressed, so the size and role of SS increased. It surged from a pre-war force of three regiments (approximately 9,000 soldiers) to 38 divisions (around, say, 380,000 soldiers).  Casualties rose as well – the inevitable fate awaiting shock troops – and new fronts opened.  SS troops were engaged in ethnic and political “cleansing” of rear areas and the quality control of recruits was relaxed for these operations which relied more on policing and terror tactics than any military skills.  Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia were particularly subject to Nazi policies of imprisonment, looting, torture and extermination.

Other ethnicities, often from territories newly occupied by the German Army, were brought in to do these less-savoury tasks. Wikipedia suggests a very plausible list of the countries that were represented in the SS and it makes surprising reading for those who may not have travelled this historical area before (UK, France, Sweden, US, India…). It includes soldiers numbering in the thousands from both Russia and Ukraine.

Wikipedia: Foreign SS units were made up from recruits in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium (both Wallonia and Flanders), Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Galicia, Georgia, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia (including Cossack and Tatar, Turkic SSR Republics), Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Independent State of Croatia, Asian Regiment, Arab Regiment, USA (15-20 volunteers) and a small number of British troops.

Where the controversy arises – and where the propaganda appears to really bite, is the documented role that some Ukrainian and Russian individuals, commanders and larger military bodies played as members of the SS during the 1940s.

My enemy’s enemy…

When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 they were invariably welcomed by Ukrainian peasants who had been through various Soviet purges and famines for the previous ten years. This turned into active anti-Nazi partisan resistance once the German intention to subjugate rather than liberate became clear.  In the latter stages of the war, these partisans, empowered by arms, combat experience and nationalist spirit, then turned against Soviet Army as it started to reoccupy Ukraine.  Until a couple of years ago I had not realised that a counter-insurgency between the Ukrainian nationalist partisans and the Soviet Union went on well after the World War Two had finished – even up to 1959.

The Waffen-SS division No. 14 “Galicia” division comprised largely Ukrainian volunteers who fought the Soviet Army. In the dying hours of World War Two, the division was renamed 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army. Many Ukrainians see the division’s history, including its role in the SS, as part of the birth of modern Ukraine and celebrate the leaders and soldiers as nationalist heroes for fighting against the Soviets.

Let’s balance this out a little. Several hundred thousand of Russian soldiers, of those captured in the big encirclement battles of 1941-42, served in the Wehrmacht. The Russian Liberation Army, under ex-Soviet General Andrey Vlasov, was organised from such Russian prisoners. This seems to have been largely a propaganda force with only a few thousand troops actually fighting in combat. In addition to these forces, a Cossack cavalry division was formed in 1943. The two Cossack cavalry divisions that ultimately emerged were known as the XV Cavalry Corps. They were later (in February 1945) transferred to command of the SS and became the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps.

Waffen SS and Cossacks in Warsaw 1944

Waffen SS and Cossacks on operations in Warsaw, 1944

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler inspects troops of the 14

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler inspects troops of the 14 “Galicia” SS Division in 1944

As part of the Russian response to Ukraine’s Maidan series of protests, Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea and the Russian-sponsored conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian propaganda machine has consistently hurled “Nazi” and “fascist” insults at Ukraine, building on a small germ of truth that can be blown up and distorted.

crimea swastika

Ukraine’s role in World War Two is historically complex. It is also still politically sensitive, particularly to a country that is still weak and vulnerable after a period of revolutionary turmoil and with an ongoing conflict in its east regions. There are still right wing movements (the Right Sector) in the country who celebrate key anniversaries associated with the Galicia division and sport associated logos and beliefs from that period. Some of these groups were involved in the violence associated with the Maidan square demonstrations. However, amidst a fog of provocateurs from all sides, there is still a lack of clarity regarding “who did what to whom”. Unofficial militia battalions (the Azov Battalion is a good example) fighting in the east appear to have connections to right wing organisations and make unconvincing denials when pressed on less savoury ideologies.

So this has been a routine, straightforward and effective Russian propaganda angle. It might be relatively simple for independent analysts, academics and journalists to highlight the crude, clumsy and distorted nature of these attacks, but in the end, much of this sticks – and not just in the local area. I was discussing Ukraine and the Crimea with an intelligent and informed friend of mine in London last year to be asked “But why are we bothering about the Ukraine government? Aren’t they just a bunch of fascists?”.

To bring this up to date, the Ukrainian government has, in the last few days, issued a statement warning that a new Russian offensive inside Eastern Ukraine is imminent.  Nothing new in itself, but Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Olexander Turchynov, seems to be attempting to replay the Nazi slur straight back to the Russians. It is helpful to read the entire statement to get the context (my bold highlights the Waffen-SS references).

27 August 2015:

Oleksandr Turchynov: In Donbas we confront the military units of the regular army of the Russian Federation, formed by the model of “Waffen-SS”

During the summer of 2015 there were radical changes in the character of Russian engagement in military actions in the East of Ukraine. Now Armed Forces of Ukraine are confronted not by mixed Russian-terrorist groupings, as it was from the beginning of the occupation, but by structured military units of Russian regular army.

At the occupied territory of Donbas the military leadership of Russia has completed the creation of a powerful ground formation, based on two army corps, ready to conduct active offensive operations. Control and supplying of 1st and 2nd army corps are performed by the specially created 12th command of reserve of Southern District of Russia’s Armed Forces (headquarters located in town Novocherkassk, Rostov region of Russia). Key command and staff positions in these army corps are occupied by Russian permanent officers. Enlisted personnel of these corps consists up to 40% of residents of the occupied territory of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as contract soldiers and mercenaries from Russia, who have gained combat experience during the hostilities in the East of Ukraine and in flash points of Russia. The authorized strength of these two army corps is up to 35 thousand men. In addition, at the occupied territory there is a military reserve consisting of 21 tactical groups of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (15 battalion, 6 company groups), numbering more than 9 thousand people. On the eastern border of our country another 53 tactical groups of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are concentrated (39 battalion, 14 company groups) numbering 50,5 thousand people.

The features of forming and functioning of the 1st and 2nd army corps indicate that the Russians for their creation have chosen the model, approbated by the leadership of Germany during World War II and known as the “Waffen SS”.

“Waffen SS” is the military units of “SS” which participated in the combat actions at the front during the World War II. Due to the limitation of their own mobilization resource the leadership of Germany has decided to enlist volunteers, who were citizens of occupied countries. In accordance with the official policy of that time exclusively German nationals could serve in the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces).

There were no such restrictions for the “SS”, so as a part of it special “Waffen-divisions” were created, which consisted of foreign volunteers and were formed usually on ethnic or religious grounds. German permanent officers of “SS” served as commanders of these “Waffen-divisions” and volunteers from occupied countries were taken to serve as cannon fodder on positions of privates or other lowest military posts. Exactly this experience of forming military units for conducting hostilities in the East of Ukraine was added by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia to its armory. We obtain fundamental data on generals and officers of the Russian army, who are included to the commanding level of Russia’s occupation forces. Materials concerning them are being transferred to the Office of Prosecutor General of Ukraine for launching criminal investigations. The command of all the grouping of Russian occupation forces is being carried out by Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, Chief of Staff – First Deputy to Commander of the Southern Military District (cover identification document on a surname Sedov).

In particular, the command of the 1st army corps before the beginning of August 2015 was carried out by Major-General of the Russian Army Alexey Zavizyon, seconded from the post of Chief of Staff of the 41st Army of Central Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, who have used cover identification document on a surname Pilevin. The commander of the 2nd army corps is Major-General of Russian Army Evgeniy Nikiforov (cover identification document on a surname Morgun), seconded from the post of Deputy to Commander of 58th Army of Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. A rotation was held here. Down to recent times this army corps was under command of Lieutenant-General Sergey Yudin, who headed the Staff of the 20th Army of Western Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. I would like to stress once again that we are confronted by fully functional military units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

At the occupied territories a large number of heavy armament and military equipment is concentrated, a staggered accumulation of large amounts of fuel and ammunition is being carried out, which are to ensure the conduct of active offensive operations and, according to the plan of Russian General Staff, will be supported by the intrusion of additional units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to the territory of Ukraine.

So the battle for control of history – and the playing with fire – continues. The statement here by Mr Turchynov looks crude and, where the Waffen-SS references are concerned, essentially irrelevant. It invites a predictable Russian propaganda reprise highlighting the role of Ukrainian forces in the SS. It is a distraction from any legitimate concerns the Ukrainian government has over Russian military activity inside its borders. There is no valid military or political point to be made, other than a blatant attempt to play the Russians at their own ugly and immature media game by throwing the term “Waffen-SS” out as many times as possible.

It is a poor decision. It doesn’t help anybody and certainly will not contribute to conflict resolution. No additional credibility with the West will be gained.  Better for all to demonstrate a willingness to set some the uglier periods of history to one side for the historians and rise above it.

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