Putin’s tactics in Ukraine rival Stalin’s engineered famine in the 1930s

Vladimir Putin’s brazen and barbarous invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of the artificially engineered famine Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used in 1932-1933 in an attempt to extinguish Ukraine.

Stalin unleashed a famine referred to by Ukrainians as the Holodomor (“killing by hunger”) to break Ukrainian resistance when they refused to cooperate with the Russian system of collective agriculture.  Like Putin’s actions today, it was an act of genocide.

Just as energy is Putin’s gold, grain was Stalin’s. He strove to gain control over Ukraine’s fabled breadbasket to finance his ambitious industrialization and militarization plans by forcing millions of peasants onto collective farms.

When the people resisted, Stalin deployed the secret police and military to ruthlessly crush what he considered to be Ukrainian nationalism, while continuing to requisition grain for export in exchange for hard currency and engaging in the widespread persecution, deportation to the Gulag, and execution of the non-compliant.

During 1932-33, Ukraine suffered mass starvation.  Nearly four million people, about 13 percent of the Ukrainian population at the time, are estimated to have died of famine in a land of unrivalled fertility.  Many in the international human rights community consider the famine genocide.

Today, Russian tactics in Ukraine, such as indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, is fueling a death toll not witnessed in Europe since the days of Stalin and Hitler.

Put bluntly, after the Russian invaders were forced to withdraw from Bucha, a small town in the Kyiv region, the graphic images of mass graves, tortured and mutilated bodies, executed civilians with their hands bound behind their backs suggesting they had been first been taken captive and then killed, of streets covered with corpses, provided photographic evidence of Russia’s open and horrific war crimes.  The available evidence makes it unlikely that these people died as a result of collateral damage resulting from a military exercise.

While many Ukrainian allies expressed shock and grief, the Russian president dismissed the accusation that his army committed war crimes in Bucha, accusing Ukraine of staging the atrocities.  Another example of the numerous official fictions Putin monotonously propagates.


President Biden, who previously called Mr. Putin a war criminal, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have accused Russian forces of committing genocide in Ukraine.  Zelensky said Putin was trying to “wipe out the idea” of a Ukrainian identity.

Moscow has categorically disputed the genocide claims and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy over its own crimes. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine.

Genocide is regarded as the gravest crime against humanity and has a strict legal connotation.  The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention defines it as crimes committed “with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.   It is exemplified by Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jewish population, during which more than six million Jews were killed.

Genocide is harder to prove than other violations of international law because it requires evidence of specific intent.  While proving intent beyond reasonable doubt is difficult, genocide is recognizable.  Russia has targeted and killed civilians; is reported to have forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and bombed a maternity hospital.  Given the scale of Russian violence genocide warnings need to be taken seriously.

As evidence of Russian atrocities are revealed, one after another, use of the term genocide echoes the holodomor, the genocidal tactics favored by Stalin in the 1930s to starve the Ukrainian people.

The blame lies with Putin.  He is trying to re-absorb Ukraine into Russia, push back against NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and regain Russia’s position on the world stage.

Many Russians have long been suckers for greatness.

In the process, Putin has turned Russia into an international pariah.  Given what he has done, the thought of anyone in the West negotiating with him is difficult to stomach.

Do Economic Sanctions Work

When Western policymakers want to influence an outcome and military intervention is deemed too risky, economic sanctions are a favorite non-lethal tool in their bag of tricks. The war in Ukraine is the latest example of their use.

Attacking a country’s economy through sanctions can be a way of hitting your enemy where it hurts—in the pocketbook. And it’s a lot easier than going to war. The question is whether sanctions cause as many problems as they solve.

Economic sanctions are not a novel concept in international diplomacy. The aim of weakening the enemy through the material deprivation of its population long predates modern times. In fact, it dates back to the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbor Megara in 432 B.C. that helped trigger the Peloponnesian War.

Economic sanctions come in different forms depending on the desired outcome. Besides economic and trade sanctions, these measures include targeted actions such as arms embargoes, freezing assets, commodity restrictions and travel bans on key individuals and organizations.

These sanctions can be imposed by a single country or multilaterally, by like-minded nations, or international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union. Sanctions can be wide-ranging, banning all transactions with a specific country, while targeted or smart sanctions aim to minimize collateral damage to the general population and instead focus on specific individuals or entities believed to be responsible for offending behavior.

The economic sanctions placed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine are the widest ranging ever placed on a major economic power. Will they work? Restrictions on Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, for example, impoverished their populations but haven’t led to political change.

To take just one example, the war in Ukraine has put pressure on European energy markets where supply and demand were already being disrupted. Consider will the European Union’s (EU) proposed oil sanctions on Russia weaken Putin’s ability to finance the war? Fossil fuel exports provide the revenue for Russia’s military buildup and brutal aggression against Ukraine.

The 27 members of the EU buy a quarter of their oil and more than 40 percent of their gas from Russia, paying $450 million per day for oil and $400 million per day for gas. There is no consensus yet among EU members on stopping Russian gas imports.

The EU recently stopped Russian coal imports, and after dithering over a decision to sanction Russian oil imports, the EU Commission has committed to weaning itself off Russian oil. The President of the Commission announced that oil imports from Russia will be banned after six months and refined petroleum products by the end of the year, ratcheting up its efforts to cut off a key source of funding for the Kremlin.

This was the EU’s sixth package of sanctions against Moscow, and its biggest and costliest step yet toward supporting Ukraine and ending its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

Now the EU is struggling to replace that oil. It is also making a big bet that Russia will not retaliate by turning off natural gas supplies, as they have already done with Bulgaria and Poland for refusing to pay in rubles. Just as Europe hopes to find new oil suppliers, so Russia is working hard to line up alternative buyers such as India to minimize the impact on their bottom line and to continue to take advantage of higher oil prices to compensate for lower volume.

China is a likely market. Last year a third of Russian oil exports went to China. While Russia relies on oil and gas exports for 45 percent of its revenue, according to the International Energy Agency, it may well be that the EU’s oil ban won’t cause large and lasting damage unless China joins the Russian oil boycott, and that is highly unlikely.

But it’s very likely that the proposed ban will hurt the European economy and Europeans are going to have to deal with higher energy prices.