Ukraine War: Help Putin save face, recognize Russian WW2 victory - opinion

WHEN THE Soviet Union dissolved, Vladimir Putin called it ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.’
(photo credit: SPUTNIK/REUTERS)

Perhaps the solution to peace, or at least a key part of it, means finally publicly accepting the reality of how the war against Germany was won.

I argued in the April 6 issue of the Washington Jewish Week that the US, and the West in general, needed to address two of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s obsessions.

First, we must recognize that Russia suffered an enormous loss when the Soviet Union dissolved, what Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Second, we must recognize that Russia has real security fears, based most recently on their being attacked by Hitler. They lost 25 million people (the US lost 400,000) civilians and soldiers combined, in their effort to defeat Nazi Germany in what they have always called “The Great Patriotic War.”

I recommended a strategy that is defended in a column by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on September 22, namely taking a page from John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis by figuring out a way for Nikita Khrushchev to save face. JFK removed US missiles from Turkey (it became public 25 years after the fact). I argued that the US and NATO today should remove our nuclear weapons from Europe.

Learning from the Cuban Missile Crisis is wise, although a different approach is needed at this stage of the war to enable Putin to save face.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2021. (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS)

How can we help Putin save face to prevent nuclear war?

Putin has annexed several regions of southern Ukraine and he has indicated that with a war going on in Russian territory, there would be justification for a stronger defense of their territory. This invites the use of tactical – or even strategic – nuclear weapons.

NOW, DURING the 10 holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are there any lessons we can learn that could be united with a save-the-face JFK strategy?

Yom Kippur and World War II: Russia, not the US and UK, did most of the work beating the Nazis

During this period of reflection, Jews are supposed to recognize the sins of the previous year and ask God to forgive them for their sins on Yom Kippur itself. Perhaps we need to reflect as a nation – and the UK, our World War II allies – and Israel can reflect as well, on how we have indeed taken too much credit for the victory against Nazi Germany.  

The “finest hour” in the UK (to use Churchill’s phrase) is when they prevented Germany from taking the UK during the Battle of Britain, which was fought in the air. The US basically won the war against the Japanese (the other half of World War II) and led the charge against Germany in the final stage of the war starting with D-Day on June 6, 1944.

The Russians, as Sir Max Hastings demonstrated in Inferno, destroyed most of the German army – 80-90% of its soldiers were killed. The main fighting against the German army was done by the Russians, and it was done before D-Day.

Perhaps the solution to peace, or at least a key part of it, means finally publicly accepting the reality of how the war against Germany was won. This recognition does not buttress Russia’s security: instead, it finally meets their need to have their security fears recognized and their leading role in winning the war against Germany recognized.  Moreover, it lessens their need to rebuild their empire if their overall identity is strengthened.  

The challenge is to award Russia with the credit they deserve in a way that makes Putin the victor in the eyes of the Russian people, lifting their sense of self-esteem throughout the world.

If this were a play of one family, written by either Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil, one can imagine the father admitting to some truth that set the record straight with his wife and his children. Just stating the truth about the past – as when the father in All My Sons finally admitted that his company used low-quality parts in the airplanes they built during World War II, which explained how his own son, a navy pilot, was killed in battle –  can have a powerful effect on everyone.

Does the solution involve an effort to repair wounds with the Russians centered around a ceremony, treaty, or some forum that is covered globally via the Internet and social media? 

So laugh today at the absurdity of the US and the UK, and the West in general, finally giving Russia the gratitude it deserves for defeating the Nazis – and using 21st-century information technology to broadcast this message. Then watch Russia wreak havoc with nuclear weapons on the global system.

Or, we can accept our own sins of taking too much credit for winning the war in Europe, and find a way to give Russia the credit they are due, and give Putin a way to save face. Moreover, we launch an era of peace and cooperation among Russia, Ukraine, the US, and our NATO allies which involve a resolution to the Russia/Ukraine war that asks Ukraine to give up a minimal amount of territory.

The writer ( is editor of the interdisciplinary volume, Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework (Springer, 2014), and has taught at five colleges and universities.

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