Russia’s Aggression against Ukraine and the Idealised Symbolism of Nuremberg

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The Nuremberg International Military Tribunal (IMT) has a very strong symbolic standing for all post-Soviet nations and especially for Russia. Nuances, complexities and shortcomings are inherent to the IMT legacy. However, in Ukraine, Russia and the wider region, a Nuremberg reference will almost always have the connotation of paramount justice and the victory of the ultimate good over ultimate evil.

Such a strong idealised standing of the IMT in the region has reached an amplified potency amid Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Both states refer to Nuremberg: Ukraine – in the discussions of accountability avenues for the ongoing aggression, Russia and its satelites – in its aspirations to prosecute Ukraine’s allegedly Nazi leadership (and people).

Russia invokes Nuremberg (and the Genocide Convention) even to ban Instagram. Nuremberg is central to Russia’s foundational pillar of its ultimate military glory in the Great Patriotic War (its euphemism for the WWII Eastern Front) and all related memory policies (including the criminalisation of “distorted narratives” about the Great Patriotic War and the IMT). As no Soviet or Allied Powers’ crimes were tried at Nuremberg, Russia’s interpretation of the IMT legacy essentially boils down to a claim that, as simultaneously a victor and a victim, it cannot be a perpetrator – neither during the WWII nor during the “special military operation” against Ukraine.

In fact, in the course of the “denazification” – one of the declared aims of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, – Russia is supposed to act as a “guardian” of the Nuremberg legacy and create a new IMT (as well as introduce the death penalty and labour camps). The Russian Investigative Committee and an NGO symbolically named the International Civic Tribunal for Ukraine are already gathering evidence for a contemporary show-IMT contemplated by the Russian Duma – a Kyiv or Mariupol Tribunal. The latter might be complementary to the tribunal which is being developed by Russia’s satellite “Donetsk people’s republic” (“DPR”) specifically for Ukraine’s Azov battalion. Like the Nuremberg IMT did, the “republic’s” tribunal might impose the death penalty – the punishment which has already been activated by the “DPR’s” “supreme court” regarding foreign members of Ukraine’s army in the proceedings breaching international law. 

For the supporters (active or otherwise) of President Putin, such initiatives filled with Nuremberg references are a powerful symbolic antidote to all the international legal action into Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine.

Ukraine regularly invokes Nuremberg in the calls for accountability for the Kremlin’s aggression. When substantiating the necessity to prosecute Russia’s political and military leadership and the threats which the possible impunity might bring, Ukraine often refers to the IMT Judgment by describing aggression as “the supreme international crime” that “contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (p. 25). Ukraine’s President Zelensky spoke about a Nuremberg-like trial in his UNSC address. Indeed, one of the biggest coalitions of the leading domestic human rights NGOs involved in the documentation of the devastating effects of Russia’s invasion since 2014 for the purposes of Ukrainian, foreign domestic and international proceedings is called “The Tribunal for Putin”.

It should be noted that for Ukrainian society, the “Nuremberg model” is more about catalysing a powerful reverberation of a particular message rather than procedural particularities. For Ukrainians, the symbolism of Nuremberg boils down not to a strict historical analogy of an international agreement between several nations to prosecute Russia’s leadership. Rather, it is the expression of an aspiration for an extraordinary and specialised nature of a potential forum, be it ad hoc or hybrid. It is hoped that such a forum, with as wide international support as possible, will make an unequivocal pronouncement that Russia has encroached not just on Ukraine’s sovereignty and individual lives of its people but more widely on the international rule-based order – and for that, it receives the judgment of law, reason and history. An interplay with Nuremberg is also emblematic for Ukrainians in light of their fight with Russia’s solidifying fascist regime, whose annihilating ideology has even given birth to a special term, which grimly alludes both to the events of the 1930s-1940s and the subsequent IMT.

Despite all its complexities, the 1945-1946 Nuremberg Trial has contributed to a unique historical narrative, which has a special standing for post-Soviet nations. And this is exactly what Ukraine aims for the potential aggression trial to do: not just to render convictions, but, first and foremost, to use fact, law and due process to build an argumentative, intricate and multifaceted narrative for future generations, especially for Russian society. The Ukrainians expect the aggression proceedings to thoroughly discuss how a delirious neo-colonial idea of a “gathering of historic Russian lands” has undermined many dimensions of peace and security for their nation, the region and the world and, ultimately, 80 years later, put Russia, who fought the Nazis alongside the Ukrainians and Belarusians as the Red Army, on the opposite side of history.

Therefore, explaining the interplay of a potential aggression trial, whatever form it might take, with Nuremberg, is likely to have at least two effects in the region. First, for Ukrainians, it would be a tested historical validation of the proposed accountability model for Putin and his allies, which promises to send powerful indicting and preventive messages as well as contribute to a storyline that transcends a courtroom and state borders. Second, for Russia, it would be akin to hitting it with its own sacred lamb. It is one thing to tell the Russians that x and y of the Putin regime have been found guilty for waging an aggressive war against Ukraine. It is different in terms of psychological impact and narrative-wise, to tell them, especially those 58% to 71% who ostensibly support President Putin, that a contemporary Nuremberg has convicted their leadership of aggression. It is unlikely that those supporters will suddenly comprehend or convert. However, the judgement from a contemporary peer of “the trials of all trials” might aid those people to think twice and, perhaps, start gradually questioning the narratives they are getting from their strictly regulated and censored domestic news channels.

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