MOSCOW/KIEV/UNITED NATIONS – Russian official rhetoric has increasingly compared events in Ukraine to the darkest crimes of Nazi Germany as the anniversary of Soviet victory in World War II approaches this week.
Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, Russian television and officials have made frequent references to the “fascists” Moscow claims are now running Ukraine. But the latest outbreak of deadly violence has seen the propaganda reach new heights, analysts said.
Violence has escalated in Ukraine’s easternmost regions as Kiev presses its offensive to dislodge rebels. An official has said that part of the country is “essentially” at war, and the conflict is spreading to the south.
Open clashes are sweeping eastern and southern areas, from Donetsk near the Russian border to Odessa, about 100 miles (160 km) from the European Union’s southeastern frontier in Romania, amid signs the industrial and coastal regions are slipping out of the Kiev government’s control.
The Ukrainian government’s operation in the Donetsk region left five dead and 12 wounded, said Vasyl Krutov, head of Ukraine’s anti-terrorism agency. Government forces secured Slovyansk as operations in Kramatorsk continued, he said.
“What is happening in the east is not a short-term action,” Krutov said. “This is essentially a war.”
In Odessa, 42 people were killed and 125 injured in a building fire and street battle that began late Friday when pro-Russians attacked soccer fans and a pro-Ukrainian rally.
Russia wasted no time in dubbing the fire in Odessa as a new “reprisal raid” and even the “new Khatyn,” a reference to the Belarusian village where 149 residents were burned alive by the Nazis in 1943. The entire village was punished for the death of a Nazi officer; the Nazi battalion behind the massacre consisted of collaborators including nationalists from western Ukraine.
The Khatyn massacre went down in Russian history books as one of the Nazis’ most brutal “reprisal raids,” a term the Kremlin now uses to describe Kiev’s offensive against pro-Moscow rebels in Slovyansk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Saturday pointedly referred to the Odessa tragedy as a “reprisal raid,” saying “extremists” burned people alive.”What has happened, especially in the Trade Unions House, brings to mind the crimes of the Nazis during World War II,” pro-Kremlin lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told reporters in Moscow, referring to the Odessa fire. “These are the new Khatyn and Auschwitz.”
A senior official in the pro-Kremlin government of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that was taken over by Russia in March, chimed in.
“The last time people were burned alive in Ukraine was by the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War,” Rustam Temirgaliyev said on Facebook, referring to the Russian name for World War II.
Since Putin first described Kiev’s assault against pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s southeast as a “reprisal raid” last month, the term has become a Moscow favorite, used by everyone from television news anchors to U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin.
Russia’s losses and sacrifice during World War II remain a hugely sensitive subject in the country, and Putin has often reached into this history to cast pro-Western authorities in Kiev as Moscow’s enemies. He has described the Kiev government as the successor of the controversial Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which battled Soviet soldiers and collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.
Russian officials have joined suit, with Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky taking to Twitter to call the events in the southeastern Ukraine the “anti-fascist resistance.”
Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group, said Moscow is flirting with danger by ramping up its rhetoric, which is expected to further stir up tensions and pit the two Slavic nations against each other. “They are inflaming passions, but how are they going to put them out?” he asked.
Meanwhile, European military observers who were held by insurgents in eastern Ukraine walked free Saturday, with Kiev insisting the release proves Russia is fomenting unrest in Ukraine but with Moscow touting the insurgents as courageous humanists.
The head of the OSCE team expressed his “deep relief” after an ordeal that lasted more than a week. “It is happiness, a deep relief,” German Col. Axel Schneider told a small group of journalists on the road outside of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
Although Russia denies it is encouraging or directing the insurgents, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the release “was made after unambiguous instructions had been received from the Russian authorities, which yet again shows the extremists are subordinated to Moscow.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, emphasized that the release was a decision of the insurgents who have taken control of Slovyansk and called it “testimony of the courage and humanism of the defenders.”
A pact struck between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States in mid-April aimed to resolve the crisis emphasized the importance of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the mission’s prospects became clouded a week later when eight of its military observers and five accompanying Ukrainians were detained by insurgents in Slovyansk, the crucible of unrest in the east. The insurgents alleged the observers were spying for NATO and carrying suspicious material. One observer from non-NATO member Sweden was released two days later, but the rest remained in custody until Saturday.
The insurgents’ leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying he ordered the release because of increasing insecurity in the city. In recent days, at least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the city’s outskirts — two of them when helicopters were shot down — and at least 10 civilians have been killed, according to Ponomarev.
Ponomarev said the OSCE observers “are not being released — they are leaving us, as we promised them.”
The non-Ukrainians were flown late Saturday to Berlin, where they were reunited with their families.
At the United Nations, Western powers and Russia used an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday to accuse each other of hypocrisy and double standards in confronting the escalating crisis in Ukraine.
The heated exchange came during another inconclusive meeting of the 15-nation council on the crisis. Russia called for the session to condemn what it described as a “punitive” and “criminal” Ukrainian military operation in Slovyansk.
The Security Council has held more than a dozen meetings on the Ukraine crisis but has taken no formal action due to the deep disagreements among Russia, Britain, France and the United States — four of its five veto-wielding permanent members.
In their speeches, Britain and Lithuania voiced surprise at Russia’s willingness to condemn what they said was a measured and justifiable operation by Kiev against armed pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow while keeping silent about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attacks on his own people.
“The scale of Russian hypocrisy is breathtaking,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said. “Russia stoutly supports, and indeed arms, the most repressive regimes in the world — notably Syria, a regime which brutally suppresses dissent without any sense of restraint or concern for the protection of civilians.”
“Russia’s synthetic indignation over Ukraine’s proportionate and measured actions convinces no one,” he added.
Russia, backed by China, has vetoed three Security Council resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian government and threatened it with sanctions over its actions in the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year.
The U.S. and the EU accuse Russia of stirring unrest to undermine Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said officials are “losing hope” that a diplomatic solution can end the crisis.
“This is a war of maybe a different kind; it is a war that’s undeclared,” Tusk was quoted as saying by the PAP news agency. “But what we’re really dealing with is de facto a war. You can clearly see that actions taken by the international community haven’t brought results.”