The Letter from Hell, by Victor Rud

Russia’s most recent military build-up at the borders of Europe’s largest country may be preparatory to a possible expansion of its invasion and ongoing occupation since 2014, writes Victor Rud.

And it’s weaponising of human suffering is not new, this time with the engineered refugee crisis at the Belorussian/Polish border. (Lukashenka, let’s openly state, is Putin’s proxy.)

The two are integrated moves on the chessboard and, minimally, the final test of Western resolve. Seemingly long ago, immediate post WWII Europe speaks to the West’s ossified, sell-defeating mindset that has led to the tinder box in Europe’s East today. . . . but not at all the way Western foreign policy gurus, and certainly its politicians, deign to discuss.

The document is damning. It’s an appeal “To the Pontius Pilates Who Wash Their Hands,” dated March 4, 1946, by a group of Ukrainians in Hanover, Germany, and describes the plight of Ukrainian refugees from the USSR who found themselves in the “displaced persons” camps of Western Europe. Having survived Russian “international socialism” and then Germany’s “national socialism,” the refugees idolized Great Britain and America as their salvation.

Pontius Pilate

They were desperate to “tell the West!” Their message: security and stability would only come with the dissolution of the USSR, and then ensuring against a recidivist Russia.

But Stalin need not have been alarmed. Theirs was a warning the West refused to hear. The victims were not just disbelieved. They became the prey in the largest manhunt in history -- the forced repatriation by a joint venture of the two great democracies and the Soviet NKVD. The elderly, the sick, the handicapped, infants and toddlers -- all were to be delivered to the surviving tyrant who conspired with the other to unleash the cataclysm that engulfed the globe.

"Our number has been decreasing… We have nowhere to hide and nowhere to go. Civil society of Britain, USA and the rest of the world is quiet and is simply watching.

"What did we do? Give us an answer!"

For the U.S., “Operation Keelhaul” was one of multiple specific operations, jointly with the British, but has since come to designate the entirety of America’s relay race with the NKVD in the ultimate hunt. The moniker – Washington’s not Stalin’s - was all you had to know about the underlying mens rea and the fate inflicted upon human flotsam. “Without regard to their personal wishes and by force if necessary” was the repatriation order of January 4, 1946, of the Headquarters, U.S. Armed Forces, European Theatre.

The U.S. and Britain were implementing the Yalta Agreement signed with Stalin toward the end of the war. Some seek to rationalize the sycophancy as necessary to ensure the Soviet return of Allied POW’s. But a mere three weeks after Yalta, on March 5, 1945, Stalin cabled FDR that “On the territory of Poland and in other places liberated by the Red Army, there are no groups of American prisoners of war.” Three days afterward, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, cabled FDR: “We have been baffled by promises which have not been fulfilled.” (In 1992, President Yeltsin's emissary to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA’s testified that Stalin had “summarily executed” an undetermined number of American POWs.) Regardless, we should have realised that Stalin’s claiming private property rights to human lives foretold the war’s geopolitical aftermath. Why, then, the sycophancy?

President Roosevelt and normally hard-headed Winston Churchill remained enamored of a hallucination. Churchill reported to the House of Commons: Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith."

President Roosevelt was obsequious in seeking Stalin's approbation, “I think that if I give him everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.” Returning from Yalta, he told his Cabinet that Stalin’s stint as a seminarian ensures that “something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.”

After Roosevelt’s death, President Truman was equally effusive, writing in his diary, “I can deal with Stalin. He is honest.“

Soviet rule over Eastern Europe was thus something not to be challenged, but to be accommodated and assisted. “Russia [sic] must be given every assistance and every effort must be made to obtain her friendship. Two months later, on November 14, 1945, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson was also unambiguous: “To have friendly governments along her borders is essential both for the security of the Soviet Union and the peace of the world.”

“In times of universal deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” Little wonder that the truthtellers were dismissed by the democratic West. We criminalised the victims for fleeing Soviet despotism and delivered them to NKVD Major General Alexander M. Davidov at Allied Headquarters in Frankfurt. Some were killed earlier during the dragnet or by suicide en route or while still in the DP camps.

"We are human beings! We cannot and do not want to be executed quietly."

It was our “ethnic cleansing” of the truthtellers, where hapless American and British soldiers were merely “following orders.” That was the same excuse that was being concurrently intoned in Nuremberg. So adamant were the two Allies “not to provoke the Russians” that at least one British officer was court-martialed for refusing to obey an order of the NKVD.

It was thorough. George Orwell had written a special introduction to Animal Farm, translated for the Ukrainians by a 21-year-old refugee. (The translator, Ihor Shevchenko, went on to become the world’s pre-eminent scholar of Byzantine studies and one of my instructors in college.)

Deeming the book too provocative, the U.S. confiscated copies of the book and delivered them to the NKVD General. It was the same self-conditioned response (“it would upset the Russians”) that earlier led fourteen publishers to reject Orwell’s manuscript, among them was poet T. S. Eliot for Farber & Farber. General Anders’ Polish forces in exile also were denied participation in London’s June 8, 1946, victory parade because “the Russians wouldn’t like it.” (Two generations later, exiled Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky ran into the same mentality, waiting more than two decades before a Western publisher accepted the English translation of his Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity.)

The refugees did not know that their plight was sealed by the same reality denial that prostituted the Nuremberg Tribunal. I wrote elsewhere: "Telford Taylor, America’s chief counsel, wrote in his memoirs that the Tribunal did its best to protect the Kremlin from embarrassment. It obliged Stalin’s demand that the ’39 Pact never be introduced into evidence so as not to “strain relations.” Moscow’s war crimes, such as Stalin’s massacre of Polish officers at Katyn’ in 1940, and its atrocities against civilians and military in and outside the Soviet Union during WWII, simply didn’t exist.”

Ukrainians were not the only target. (Belorussians and other nations of the USSR were also targeted in the manhunt. This included the Balts even though they were not “Soviet citizens” in 1939, the trigger date.)

But Stalin’s phobia was not irrational. The Ukrainians were the most numerous nationality, and their case was the most dangerous to the Kremlin. They were the survivors, just thirteen years earlier, of Stalin’s genocidal starvation of Ukraine.

Holo 1

It was intended to kill any prospects for Ukrainian statehood, wrote Oxford’s Professor Norman Davies, thereby ensuring the viability of the Soviet Union. Western governments actively suppressed the news. The British Foreign Office described the calculus: “We do not want to make it [information about the genocide] public, however, because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relationship with them would be prejudiced. We cannot give this explanation in public.”

Washington went further and fed the Third Horseman. On November 16, 1933 , the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition—read, legitimacy and acceptance—to a state that had anointed itself the vanguard in a global war to destroy the host of the diplomatic soiree. What did the U.S. learn from Moscow’s commitment “to refrain from . . . any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order, or security of the whole or any part of the United States, in particular any agitation or propaganda?” Today, the genocidaire’s biggest enthusiast ups the assault exponentially.

The irony multiplies. On the day of Germany’s surrender, General George Patton spoke to the press corps of the U.S. Third Army in Frankfurt. It was a preview of the warning in his impending, post-retirement tour of the U.S., revealing Washington’s naivete about the Kremlin. It was not to be. The Ukrainians warned Washington of Stalin’s plan to assassinate Patton. Instead of extending thanks and support, Washington sought to arrest the Ukrainian informers. The search failed, but in the late 1950’s, Moscow completed the task with a specially designed cyanide pistol.

The history of forced repatriation betrays the synapses that have been driving the West’s dealing with Russia for decades. “Don’t provoke the Russians” translates seamlessly into obeisance and the embarrassing theatrics of supplicatory “resets,” whatever the moniker du jour. The mentality was pictured on the cover of Time magazine shortly after President Obama’s election showing him asking a Russian bear, “Can we be friends?” Little has changed from President Truman’s “I’m not afraid of Russia. They’ve always been our friend and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be. . . so let’s get along.” It has been a bi-partisan pathology, however. During the Nixon Administration and détente, “reducing tensions” resulted in America’s loss of nuclear superiority and the expansion of Moscow’s worldwide real estate. And former President Trump assured, “Getting along with Russia is a good thing,”

The underlying mentality is the scaffolding for appeasement, and the terminology is code for failure of will. It has invited ever increasing predation. Putin has obliged the latest invitation for “stability and predictability” by RSVP’ing, exploiting our pathology with aplomb. Sanctions? After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, one of the sanctioned individuals, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted, “It seems to me that some kind of joker wrote the U.S. president’s order.” As of this past July, US trade with Russia was up 41% year over year.

* * *

Three months after Yalta, Hitler’s co-conspirator was left standing, succeeding to more territory, more countries, and more humanity than his erstwhile partner ever ruled. The subsequent cost--and mortal risk--for the world were immeasurable. It was a wrenching awakening for the West . . . but not wrenching enough.

"We are human beings! What did we do? Give us an answer!"

Seventy-five years ago, the Pontius Pilates of the world never did. Seventy-five years later, what must happen before we bleed out our naivete? Look to Europe’s East today. And then look further East.



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Victor Rud

Victor Rud

Victor Rud has practiced international law for 35 years, and before the fall of the Soviet Union represented, in the West, political prisoners persecuted by the KGB. He also served as Special Counsel to a member of the US Delegation to the Madrid Review Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe ("Helsinki Accords").

His commentary has been carried, among others, by Forbes, Kyiv Post, Foreign Policy Association, Defense Report, Atlantic Council, Centre for Global Strategy, and EuromaidanPress.

Victor is Senior Advisor to Open Court, an NGO in Ukraine, and was the keynote speaker at the first L'viv Security Forum.

He is a founder and past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, and currently chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He received his undergraduate degree in international relations from Harvard College, and his law degree from Duke University.

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