The headline is stunning: Berlin. Grozny. Aleppo.
Alongside pictures of the destruction of Aleppo, the New York Times draws a straight line through three points in history. The text of the argument is clear: The devastation meted out on Aleppo, the Times is saying, is of a scale not only with the total war wrought on Chechnya, but with the effort to defeat Nazi Germany, as well. The subtext, however, is even clearer: This is how Russia fights.
The Times could have selected any number of other German cities – Dresden, perhaps, flattened by the Western allies – or it could have chosen Hiroshima. But it settled not by accident on the prize that fell to the Red Army. Taken generously, it is an attempt to help us remember wars we should not yet be forgetting. Less generously, it might seem another brick in the wall of “russophobia” that has, by some accounts, become prominent in Western political discourse.
The charge of russophobia, however, would ring truer had this particular line not been drawn first by Vladimir Putin himself. The Russian president began his 2015 address to the U.N. General Assembly with a reference – in the very first sentence – to 1945. He went on to call for a new global alliance against ISIS, citing the defeat of Hitler as precedent. And, drawing directly on Russia’s experience in Chechnya, he promised that Russia would go it alone, should the West not be willing. Back in 2015, the Berlin-Grozny-Aleppo parallel was exactly the point that Putin was trying to make.
Western observers have looked on in horror as Moscow has assisted in the devastation of a city it apparently believes is inhabited primarily by terrorists (never mind that the city has nothing to do with ISIS). The similarities between the tactics used in Aleppo and those that led to the fall of Grozny have been lost on no one and have led to calls for Moscow and Damascus to be prosecuted for war crimes. The similarities to Berlin were perhaps less apparent, but the Times has reminded us.
The problem – which accrues as much to the West as it does to Russia – is that this line, running across history and geography, tells very different stories to different people. The West is right to be aghast at annihilation of Aleppo, just as it was right to be shocked that Moscow could flatten one of its own cities in 2000. Neither, in the Western view, can be justified in the terms that made necessary the devastation of Berlin: whatever the threat from ISIS and others in Syria, Westerners simply do not see a threat of the scale of the Third Reich.
To Moscow, on the other hand, the parallel with WWII is the entirety of the point. On Russian television, in official discourse and in everyday discourse, the fight against radical Islamism is couched in the same terms used to describe the Great Patriotic War: a threat to the homeland, a global scourge, fascism, the dangers of appeasement. With those priors established, total war becomes not just thinkable, but desirable.
In other words, the Times and the Kremlin are drawing lines between the same three points in historical geography, but on different planes. The problem with parallel lines, of course, is that they never meet.