Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:26 pm
Trudy Rubin: Shades of Leningrad seen in Syria

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 extremely sensitive on the topic.

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. But the cynicism of the Russian stance is illustrated by the recently brokered deal to permit limited food deliveries to a besieged area of the city of Homs and to allow a few hundred women, children and elderly to leave. This Russian deal was pending for weeks but was announced only now 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.

Back 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 began Monday, with dismally low expectations.

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. The resolution should not be watered down further to satisfy the Russians, and it should be promptly pressed for introduction.

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 Obama should finally recognize the need to play hardball.

Contact the writer:

Omaha police investigate two Sunday shootings
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
Grace: Pipe organ concert a tribute to couple's enduring love
Omaha-area jails and ERs new front line in battling mental illness
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Civil rights hearing to consider voting policies in Midwest
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
< >
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »