Emphasizing Russia's absolutist approach to the Ukraine crisis, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday referenced an infamous Soviet no-retreat order from the Second World War.
Lavrov warned Russia would take "not a step back" when it comes to the Minsk II protocols pertaining to negotiations over southeastern Ukraine. Lavrov has a penchant for theatrics, but his choice of words bears note. His is a not-so-subtle reference to Joseph Stalin's July 1942 order No. 227.
Intended to strengthen the resolve of Red Army conscripts facing Nazi invaders, Order 227 established units to execute Red Army "panic mongers and cowards" who deserted from the front line. While brutal and ineffective, the order is seen by Russian nationalists to encapsulate the heroic sacrifice of Soviet citizens in resisting Nazi invasion.
Lavrov's revival of "not a step back" thus represents an attempt to represent the West and Volodymyr Zelesnky's Ukrainian government as modern-day successors to the Nazis.
Order 227 was issued during the Nazis' "Case Blue" summer 1942 offensive against southern Russia. That action saw Nazi-occupied Ukraine acting as a staging position. Nazi forces advanced against the Red Army from areas now under the control of pro-Russian rebels in southeastern Ukraine. The Russian city of Voronezh saw particularly heavy fighting. Today, Voronezh is the supervising center for the Russian military buildup around Ukraine.
Also similar are the existential rhetoric and associated political stakes presented by Stalin and, now, by Vladimir Putin's government.
In Order 227, Stalin challenged the "stupid people" who suggested the Red Army could "retreat further to the east" and absorb Nazi offensives. The only option, Stalin insisted, was to stand and defend territory or the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Contrast this with what Putin and his officials are saying today. Putin last week warned that Ukraine's cooperation with the West meant Russia has "nowhere to retreat further." Lavrov spoke similarly on Monday, claiming Ukrainian negotiating proposals were a "mockery of common sense."
Top line: Putin presents his interests in Ukraine as a 21st-century successor to the Soviet struggle against the Nazis. Considering the scale of Soviet losses in the Second World War and the pride that flows with those sacrifices, this reference allows Putin to frame his interests in an almost holy cloak of national importance. In the context of Putin's presentation of Ukraine as a state that simply cannot exist outside Moscow's orbit, his rhetoric should be regarded as having two purposes.
First, to prepare the Russian people for a new war in Ukraine and ensuing Western sanctions. Second, to warn that unless President Joe Biden accedes to concessions that Putin has demanded in relation to NATO and Ukraine, Russia will launch an attack. Russia has set an effective end of January deadline for acquiescence to these demands.
Put another way, Putin is readying for war.