Only Vladimir Putin could have approved these barbaric murders as part of a plan to inflict maximum pain, suffering and demoralization on the Ukrainian people and to force their surrender.
.From the earliest days of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian security operatives used the term “wet job” to describe a bloodletting in which political foes – real and imagined – were liquidated by professional assassins and secretly buried. From Lenin’s Cheka to Stalin’s KGB, executioners used the nackenschuss—a pistol shot at the base of the skull from close range. In contrast, Vladimir Putin’s wet job in the northern suburbs of Kyiv is a grisly spectacle for all the world to see. In its hasty retreat, his inept army is using street executions to butcher civilians, who pose no threat to Russia, and to demoralize the population. But there is no sign that Ukrainian will is breaking; like other Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians understand Russian barbarity all too well.
Eighty-two years ago, this spring, the Russians perpetrated a wet job that still stands in shame and infamy—the Katyn Forest Massacre in which nearly 22,000 Polish officers, noncoms and border guards captured during the Nazi-Soviet invasion of 1939 were murdered at sites in Western Russia and Eastern Ukraine. Nearly 4,000 were shot just south of Kharkiv, a city that has been under Russian’s siege since February 24.
The Russians have used absurdities to justify their invasion of Ukraine this spring, just as they did in 1939 when they launched an unprovoked attack on Eastern Poland. Putin claims that he has invaded Ukraine to denazify its leadership; in contrast, Stalin claimed that he sent the Red Army into Poland to prevent third parties from capitalizing on public disorder caused by the Nazi attack on September 1, 1939.
By the time the Katyn murders came to light in the spring of 1943, the German invasion of Russia had forced Stalin to change sides. Soviets blamed the crime on the Germans and broke diplomatic relations with the Poles when they demanded a Red Cross investigation of the Katyn murders. Russian disinformation continued a steady drumbeat of Katyn accusations against the Germans throughout World War Two, but a lame attempt to change the story was attempted the year after the war ended. A Soviet embassy official in London claimed at a private party that the Red Army sent a staff officer to the Kremlin to find out what Stalin wanted to do with the Polish officers, who were then held in camps in Western Russia and Eastern Ukraine. A plan to send them back to German-occupied Poland had just fallen through.
According to the Soviet embassy official, Stalin listened patiently, as the staff officer explained that his superiors needed specific directions. It was common to request written orders in such situations, When the staff officer finished, Stalin wrote one word on a sheet of his personal stationery— “Liquidate.”
For the staff officer’s superiors, Stalin’s reply raised more questions than it answered. Did Stalin mean to liquidate the men or the camps? He might have meant the men should be released or sent to the gulag system. Despite the ambiguity, no one wanted to risk Stalin’s ire by seeking clarification. To delay also carried the risk of retribution. So, the army took the safe way out by turning the whole matter over to the NKVD, precursor to the KGB.
For the NKVD, there was no ambiguity in Stalin’s order. It could only mean one thing: that the Poles were to be executed immediately and that is exactly what happened. No embassy officer would ever have passed on such comments at a cocktail party. That comment was a chilling reminder of what the chiefs of the NKVD had told a few Polish survivors from the camps where the murdered men had been held. It was “a great mistake,” they had said, implying that the massacre had been caused by bureaucratic blundering. In the Soviet Union, any decision of such magnitude and sensitivity could have been made by only one man: Joseph Stalin.
The same can be said of the wet job carried out recently in the northern suburbs of Kyiv. Only Vladimir Putin could have approved these barbaric murders as part of a plan to inflict maximum pain, suffering and demoralization on the Ukrainian people and to force their surrender.
President Biden has rightly accused Putin of war crimes and has called him “a killer.” The United Nations estimates that Putin’s war in Chechnya took 250,000 lives and that indiscriminate bombing in Syria be the Russian air force amounted to war crimes. To these same tactics in Ukraine, Putin has added deportations, a policy that uprooted hundreds of thousands of Poles during World War Two.
And yet cynically, Putin is more than willing to hold himself out as a man of peace. I, myself, saw him do that on April 7, 2010, at an observance of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn crime. I was told that I was the only American present in a Polish delegation of nearly a hundred led by then Prime Minister Donald Tusk that flew to Smolensk and then took a short bus ride to Katyn Forest for the observance. Many in the West saw that moment as a breakthrough in east-west relations. In his remarks at Katyn, Putin went out of his way to encourage such thinking. He urged the Poles not to blame the crime on the Russian people. One sentence in Putin’s speech still stands out twelve years later: “No matter how difficult it is, we must move toward each other, remembering everything but understanding that we can’t live only in the past.”
Those words are completely at odds with Putin’s actions. For years, he has engaged in grandiose thinking about the good old days when Russia had an empire. In Ukraine he has taken a fateful step to revive faded glory, but in doing so he has galvanized western resolve. Ukrainians and Poles know all too well the tactics of Russian aggrandizement: disinformation, propaganda, deception, subversion, sabotage, and espionage. No one knows more than they do about wet jobs.
Putin’s vision of revived empire has no room for realities about just how shabby the system was. I was in Poland when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and will never forget how run down and ramshackle the. country was. On my first visit to a grocery store, I was shocked by how empty the shelves were: no milk, meat, or cheese and only a few canned goods like turnips and beans. The absence of streetlights made Warsaw gray, drab, and depressing. My host, a
Mathematics professor at Warsaw University, took me to a Katyn observance at Powazki Cemetery on All Saints Day. Many people with lighted candles in votive jars had gathered in front of a large granite cross with a one-word inscription: “1940.” That date was a powerful symbol of Polish resistance: a reminder that the officers had been murdered when the Russians still occupied Katyn Forest and not a year or more later when the Germans occupied the area.
.Years later, when I heard Putin speak in Katyn Forest, I was struck by an even more powerful Katyn symbol—a half-sunken bell at a memorial wall. When it tolled that day, the earth around it seemed to tremble. It still rings today in memory of Polish war dead, but its muffled sound should remind us of that Ukraine, Poland and all of Eastern Europe must not stand alone—that the West must remain united in its resolve if a free and open system is to survive.