Kremlin mulls Nuremberg-style trials based on WWII tribunals | Russia

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The jubilation began just days after the missiles began falling on Ukraine. “Get ready for Nuremberg 2.0,” a former Russian diplomat wrote in a WhatsApp message. Vladimir Putin’s invasion to “denazify” the country has always pointed to a purge and show trials. Now Moscow can seize this chance.

As Russia holds hundreds of prisoners from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, its proxies in eastern Ukraine have floated the idea of ​​holding a Nuremberg-style “military tribunal” which observers say would mirror a mass show trial intended to justify Russia’s invasion of the world.

“We plan to organize an international tribunal on the territory of the republic,” said Denis Pushilin, the head of a territory controlled by Russia in the Donetsk region. A model could be the Kharkiv trial in 1943, he said, when the Soviet military tried, convicted and executed three Germans and a Ukrainian by hanging. A key audience was the world press. Photos of the hangings were printed in Life magazine.

It is unclear whether the Kremlin will follow up on such a horrific spectacle, but the idea has found supporters in the Foreign Ministry and among senior lawmakers who have angrily declared that there should be no exchange of prisoners from the soldiers captured at Mariupol. The leader of annexed Crimea says a court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, where local authorities support the death penalty, would serve as a ‘lesson for anyone who has forgotten the lessons of Nuremberg’ .

The signaling of a major political trial has raised fears that Russia is about to take another grisly step in its revival of World War II, simulating a triumphant judicial process that would taint the legacy of the Nuremberg verdict. One expert called it an Orwellian distortion of post-war language of human rights.

It would be “a political trial whose purpose is to present a particular narrative of the war that supports Putin’s denazification argument, that supports his claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis, and that supports his claims that which there are direct links between Ukrainian collaborators during World War II and Ukrainian soldiers today,” said Francine Hirsch, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg : A New History of the International Military Tribunal after World War II.

“I think it’s going to be used to try to portray what we in the West understand as fiction as if it were fact. That’s what show trials do.

With growing attention on Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including an international probe into the massacre of civilians in towns like Bucha, some observers believe Moscow could launch a military tribunal as a counter-process as new atrocities come to light. revealed.

“They’re trying to create a balance because of all the talk of the international criminal court and the Ukrainian prosecution” for war crimes, said Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London and author of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and crimes against humanity.

“I suspect…they’re creating another form of leverage for what’s to come in due time.”

Russian servicemen search Ukrainian soldiers as they are evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. Photography: AP

Sands was part of an effort now under discussion to form a special criminal tribunal to try Russia for the crime of aggression, a charge that was originally invented during the 1945-46 Nuremberg trials by a Soviet lawyer as “crimes against peace”.

He said there was an irony in Russia’s embrace of a Nuremberg-style process that would ignore any accusations of launching an illegal war against Ukraine.

“For me, the crime of aggression is the beating heart of this whole issue,” Sands said. “At the end of the day, if Putin hadn’t gone to war, none of the other crimes would have happened.”

Inscribed in the history of the Second World War, the Nuremberg trials remain a deeply personal issue for the Kremlin. The decision to propose a military tribunal is a deeper dive into what a former adviser called a historic “craze”, where terms like “denazification” are seen as having the potential to engage the Russian public.

The Kremlin “thinks that’s what the public wants to see… to feel part of history,” said the former adviser, who worked with Putin.

He also said he believed senior officials had bought into their own propaganda about the resurgence of Nazism in the West.

The story seems to be the source of the Kremlin’s propaganda and state policy. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council and one of Putin’s key allies, said in an interview this week that his policy of “denazifying” Ukraine was exactly the same as Germany’s. Nazi in 1945.

“It’s fanaticism,” the adviser said.

The Nuremberg trials that convicted Nazi war criminals reflected the political divisions of the time. Western officials feared the Soviets would treat them as a repeat of their own 1930s show trials. Soviet judges were appalled when Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech on the threat of communism as the trial was underway.

Today, Russia has used the trial as a shield against accusations of crimes under Stalin. After the European Parliament condemned Russian state propaganda in 2019 for “whitewashing communist crimes and glorifying the Soviet totalitarian regime”, Putin countered that the statement “challenged the conclusions of the Nuremberg trials” and could “undermine the foundations of all post-war Europe”.

“There is a story about Nuremberg that has become really meaningful. It’s a narrative where the Soviets are the heroes and the Soviets are the victims, but they are not responsible for any type of crime,” Hirsch said. “There is a way in which Nuremberg has really become part of Russia’s patriotic education.”

Now there are new concerns that Russia could use a tribunal modeled on a glorious past to whitewash its new invasion of Ukraine.

“If these kinds of things happen, we have to be ready and journalists have to really think about how you cover it,” Hirsch said. “How do you cover something that you know is comedy but is deadly?”

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