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July 25, 2014

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Putin, Syria and Leningrad

What’s the connection between the Sochi Olympics, Syria and the Nazi starvation siege of Leningrad in World War II? Answer: Vladimir Putin.

In 1941, Nazi Germany began an 872-day siege of the Soviet city of Leningrad designed to starve its population into surrender. The Nazi tactic claimed 1 million lives, and its horrors will never be forgotten by Russians. For Putin, the Leningrad blockade has a very special meaning, since he was born there soon after the war.

Putin’s older brother died during the siege, and his mother “stayed alive by a miracle,” he says. Just last month, Putin attended memorial services on the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation. He’s so sensitive on the topic that the Kremlin is pushing to close TV Rain (Russia’s last independent cable station) because it asked viewers whether Leningrad should have surrendered.

Yet Putin is still backing a Syrian regime that has blockaded many towns and neighborhoods for more than a year. The choice: Surrender or starve.

Shades of Leningrad, indeed.

With the world’s eyes on Sochi, some had hoped that Putin might be open to humanitarian appeals on Syria during the Olympics. (No one doubts that Russian pressure could force Bashar al-Assad to let in more humanitarian aid.)

Forty-seven prominent diplomats and human rights activists, including Madeleine Albright and 2003 Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, have asked the Russian leader to “Give the world a real Olympic opening — open Syria to life-saving aid.”

Many humanitarian organizations have called for a binding U.N. Security Council resolution (one is now being drafted by Western and Arab nations, to be introduced later this month) that would call for unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians. Russia has already made clear it opposes this idea.

True Russian indifference to civilian suffering in wartime is nothing new. I watched in 1995 as Russian heavy artillery relentlessly pounded civilian apartment buildings for hours on end in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

But the cynicism of the Russian stance is illustrated by the deal they brokered last week to permit limited food deliveries to a besieged area of the city of Homs and allow a few hundred women, children and elderly to leave. This deal was pending for weeks but was announced to take the heat off Putin at Sochi.

Meanwhile, as a Dutch priest trapped in Homs related via Skype to London’s Daily Telegraph, residents were being driven mad with starvation, feeling “abandoned” by the world.

Already the Homs deal looks like a government trap aimed at retaking the city. Evacuated civilians may disappear into deadly Syrian prisons. They are being pressured to provide the names of all men left behind, who will then become targets. Once the evacuees are gone, Syrian forces will likely starve and bomb the rest.

Moreover, the plight of the 2,500 Syrians trapped in Homs barely conveys the horrors that Syrians are enduring, in large part due to government tactics. Nine million Syrians, approaching half the prewar population, have fled abroad or are internally displaced. Regime planes rain barrel bombs filled with shrapnel onto civilian housing.

More than 242,000 Syrians live under siege, and 3 million more live in hard-to-reach areas, rarely able to access humanitarian aid deliveries, largely due to blockage by the regime.

In October, the U.N. Security Council unanimously called for all Syrian sides to facilitate humanitarian aid, but Russia refused to permit a binding resolution. The impact of that statement has been almost nil.

Nor did the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva — widely viewed as a failure — produce any movement on humanitarian issues. The second round isn’t going much better.

U.S. officials still cling to the dim hope that they can persuade Putin to lean on Assad, at least on humanitarian issues. But if the spotlight of Sochi can’t be used to move Putin, it’s hard to see what will.

So it is essential that the administration throw its full weight behind a strong and binding U.N. resolution penalizing any side that blocks humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians — and press for its introduction this week. The resolution should not be watered down further to satisfy the Russians.

It should contain a paragraph referencing in full detail the tragedy of the Leningrad siege and comparing the Nazis’ use of starvation tactics to the similar behavior of Assad.

If Moscow vetoes this resolution, the onus will be on Putin.

A Russian veto might convince the White House that it needs to revisit its Syria strategy, and add more muscle, if it wants Putin to take the Geneva talks seriously. If the memory of his mother’s suffering doesn’t move Putin, President Barack Obama should finally recognize the need to play hardball.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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