Black Earth, Scorched Earth.

For years, I asked a question of my students in an Ethics Class I taught in Cornell University’s Labor Studies Program: “If you had the hard evidence that Hitler was slaughtering Jews, and had the opportunity to kill him, would you?

This week, in an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky updated and broadened the moral question for us, and provided the world with an answer:

“All the (Ukrainian) people who die, will die because of you (NATO), your weakness. I remember, books about the Second World War, and about the devil in uniform, Adolf Hitler; Does the world carry responsibility for the Genocide? When you have the ability to close the sky — but whether the world is responsible for this — Yes, I believe so, I believe so. Stand in front of the mirror and ask yourself , “are you able to do something?” And ask, who are you?”

Zelensky, a lawyer by training, and the Ukrainian-born Jewish son of a computer scientist and an engineer, has been fearless — not only in standing up to the calculated, criminal and murderous methods of the world’s latest mass-murderer, Russian President Vladimir Putin — but in confronting Western leaders with uncomfortable ethical questions.

“If you are the UN Security Council,” Zelensky asked the members of the UN, “where is the Security? Do you think that the time of International Law is gone?”

Similarly, he has expressed skepticism about the roaring rhetorical charges of “War Crimes,” being lodged by the US and NATO members against the Russians, and whether those charges will ever be enforced, if adjudicated. After all, the United States, Russia, China and India — some of the world’s leading nuclear powers — have rejected the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the primary international body for prosecuting War Crimes. If even the UShas rejected the legal authority of the ICC, how can we expect Russia — a non-member as well — to ever accept that tribunal’s judgement?

Zelensky knows that the “War Crimes” war cry against Putin and Russia, is an empty threat, to take attention away from the failure of the US & NATO to commit their own forces in direct military punishment of Putin, and to make the West feel better about not stopping the crimes while they are happening in real time, in full view of the entire world. In a detailed New York Times analysis this week entitled “War Crimes Often Avoid A Reckoning,” by Max Fisher, the Times reported that: “In 2016, the ICC opened an investigation into possible war crimes committed during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia…Prosecutors requested the first arrest warrants only last month,” some 14 years after the alleged War Crimes occurred. Fourteen years.

During World War II, the United States waited for two years to confront Hitler with direct military force, ignoring clear evidence of the madman’s widespread massacre of Jews across Europe & the Ukraine, and the Nazi’s brutal takeover of nations like Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Despite, or maybe because of, the History Channel’s endless reruns of World War II, we appear to believe that the lessons of the past — of mass murder, genocide and the utter destruction of civilizations — are only made-for-television events. But, we are shown by the hour, as Zelensky emphasized for CBS’ Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes: “This is not a movie; This is real life.”

Yale Professor Timothy Snyder has worked mightily to teach us that sobering lesson as well. Most well-known for his best-selling, small but powerful book, “On Tyranny — published during the first year of the Trump Administration, as a warning against the weakening of democracy in America — Snyder has authored 12 other books, and is one of the world’s foremost experts on authoritarianism. Snyder has repeatedly warned us that the Holocaust could happen again if we are not assiduous in defending democracy and the rights of individuals. Or, as Zelensky has said recently, “Never again, is happening again,” underscoring the emptiness of words without immediate and direct military intervention to stop another Holocaust in progress.

Professor Snyder’s book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Tim Duggan Books/Division of Penguin Random House, NY., 2015) is both a detailed and riveting examination of how the Nazi Holocaust happened, and an alarm for spotting the scorched-earth, inhumane tactics Vladimir Putin and Russia are taking today in Ukraine. Eerily, the term “Black Earth,” defines Ukraine — a land always known for its fertile, rich soil and as the “breadbasket of Europe”, and now seen as a wasteland of charred hospitals and apartment buildings, bombed out train stations and community centers, and half-buried bodies with frozen limbs emerging from unmarked graves.

The conquest of Ukraine (then part of Russia), was a central element of Hitler’s plan for Lebensraum, or land on which the Third Reich could grow and become a global empire. “I need the Ukraine, “ Hitler said, “in order that no one is able to starve us out again, like in the last war.” In Putin’s case, the conquest of Ukraine was essential to restore Russia to its glory days of Soviet Empire, his own version of Lebensraum.

Putin appears to be adhering to Hitler’s (and Stalin’s) examples. He has dispatched the “Butcher of Aleppo”, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, to wipe out more Ukrainians. Dvornikov brutalized and murdered thousands of Syrian civilians in the Russian Air War campaign in 2015, earning the Russian General the designation of “War Criminal.” The Washington Post reported that Gen. Dvornikov was honored as a “hero of the Russian Federation,” in 2016, for his work in “widespread and indiscriminate bombardments of Syrian civilians, neighborhoods and hospitals.”

In the April 10, 2022, story headlined, “What to Know about Russia’s New Top Commander in Ukraine,” the Washington Post pointed out that:

“Many of the Russian tactics being seen in Ukraine — the use of cluster bombs, unrelenting bombing of civilian areas, targeting hospitals and shelling an area and then returning to hit it again after emergency services respond — were part of Moscow’s playbook in Syria.”

Brutal authoritarians like Putin, Dvornikov, Hitler and Stalin borrow tactics of mass slaughter from each other, especially when they are not forcibly prevented from doing so by the world’s democracies. It was the USSR’s own Joseph Stalin, another one of Putin’s heroes, who inspired Hitler to use mass starvation — much as Putin is using it in Mariupol — as an illegal tool of war, by using it against his own people, the Ukrainians, whether they were Russian-speakers or not. In Black Earth, Professor Snyder writes:

“Stalin wished to apply to his own subjects (Ukrainians) the policies that he believed imperialists applied to native peoples…Soviet policy brought massive resistance and massive starvation…in the second half of 1933, Stalin treated the starvation region in Ukraine as a political problem, blamed the Ukrainians themselves, and claimed the whole crisis was the result of Polish intelligence work….About 3.3 million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died horrible and unnecessary deaths of starvation and disease in 1932 and 1933….thousands of peasants fled Soviet Ukraine across the Polish border, entire villages at a time, begging for a war of liberation. The summary report of the Polish border guards assigned to interview the Ukrainian refugees read as follows: “The population longs for armed intervention from Europe.”

Zelensky and nearly five million Ukrainian refugees have been pleading for “armed intervention from Europe,” and the US, since the very outset of the Russian invasion. Forgetting history, we immediately ruled out a direct military confrontation with Russia, citing a fear of triggering “Nuclear War,” — precisely the talking point which Putin wanted the West to parrot. Our reluctance to fight Putin’s immoral and illegitimate use of force in Ukraine with the defensivelegitimate and superior force of NATO nations, sent the message to Russia — as the British and French sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich did to Hitler in 1938 — that 44 million Ukrainians were expendable, as long as Western soil was left untouched.

When Putin ordered the attack on the refugee-full train station in Kramatorsk, turning Kramatorsk into a crematoria for all the world to see, Zelensky — fresh from witnessing the barbarism by the Russian soldiers in Bucha — frankly framed what faced us: “This is an evil that has no limits.” Unspoken was the phrase, “unless the overwhelming power of NATO and the U.S. are immediately and equally engaged to limit such evil.”

Instead, American intelligence officials applauded themselves for forcasting that Russia would, indeed, invade Ukraine. Our intelligence information was correct and we were elated, yet, when Putin did invade, as we knew he would, our response remained the same — weapons to Ukraine; economic sanctions vs. Russia. We had firmly planted the flag for freedom, not in the life-giving “Black Earth” of Ukraine which still feeds the world, but just over a political border, where the Western version of humanity resides. All lives east of that border were expendable, unless, of course, they became refugees in the West. Incredibly, we were content to predict Putin’s next assault on Ukrainian civilians, rather than directly prevent it.

US & NATO officials patted ourselves on the back for agreeing to more tough economic sanctions against Russia, and continuing the steady flow of weapons to Ukraine — as long as the Ukrainians, not Americans nor Europeans, faced Putin directly — even when a NATO aerial attack on clearly visible, miles-long Russian supply caravans — outside of Kyiv and now in Eastern Ukraine — could stop the slaughter. Ukrainian lives, it seemed, were not worth nearly as much as American or European lives. It was not lost on Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians that a similar catastrophic conclusion — for far more twisted, sinister and evil purposes — was made by both Hitler and Stalin decades earlier. It’s a dehumanizing distinction which should not be lost on all of us

CBS’ 60 Minutes anchor Scott Pelley asked Ukrainian President Zelensky what he wanted the world to understand:

We are defending the ability of a person to live in the modern world. We are defending the right to live,” Zelensky said. “I never thought this right was so costly. These are human values. So that Russia doesn’t choose what we should do and how I’m exercising my rights. That right was given to me by God and my parents.”

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