The Ukrainian government is describing its offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country as an “anti-terrorist operation,” language that offends the separatists and Russia.
In turn, Russia is using even stronger language, saying that the Ukrainian military has launched a “punitive operation.” While that may not carry any special meaning to Western ears, it has far more sinister implications for Russians.
A Russian friend of mine, professional interpreter Alevtina Potemkina, points out that the expression being used is karatelnaya operatsiya, a phrase that refers almost exclusively to Nazi atrocities carried out in German-occupied lands during World War II. She said she had never heard or read the phrase outside of the Nazi context.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, used the expression multiple times in statements to the state-run news agencies.
“The Kiev regime ordered combat aircraft to fire at civilian towns and villages, launching a ‘punitive operation’ and effectively destroying all hope for the viability of the Geneva agreements,” Peskov said, referring to recent diplomatic efforts in the Swiss city aimed at resolving Ukraine’s crisis.
Throughout the ongoing crisis, Russian officials have frequently made comparisons to the Nazis when speaking about the interim Ukrainian government and far-right groups that are hostile to Russia.
Russian officials say the Kiev government is made up of “fascists” and “neo-Nazis,” conflating the Ukrainian authorities with the ultra-nationalist groups that took part in the protests that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
While there clearly are far-right groups active in Ukraine, analysts usually describe them as playing a limited role in the overall conflict.
The Russian reminder of Nazi war crimes comes during an upsurge of patriotic fervor among the Russian public following Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
On May 1, an estimated 100,000 people turned out for a revival of the Soviet-era May Day parade in Red Square. In addition to the banners celebrating workers and their trade unions, there were many people carrying signs that expressed support for President Putin.
World War II, known to Russians as “The Great Patriotic War,” will be on people’s minds even more in the coming week. May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, marking the date that Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union. The Soviets suffered millions of casualties during that war, and war anniversaries have deep personal meaning for many people.
Meanwhile, Russian news reports on the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, the focus of the Ukrainian military operation, portray it as a city under siege, where civilian protesters are holding out against an onslaught from an illegitimate Ukrainian government installed by an armed coup.
The reports describe the Ukrainian forces not as soldiers, but as members of the ultra-nationalist group “Right Sector.”
Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, reminded reporters in Moscow that the Russian leader had earlier said that a Ukrainian military operation against the pro-Russian separatists would be “criminal.”
“Regrettably, the ongoing events have fully confirmed this assessment,” the press secretary said.
The language that Russian officials have begun using makes it clear that the crimes the Kremlin has in mind are war crimes.