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: trubin@phillynews.com

World champion Crawford's promoter working to have title defense at CenturyLink Center
Hail, strong winds, heavy rain hit south-central Nebraska
Agreement reached to end dog racing at Bluffs Run at end of 2015
Police ID. body found near 36th, Seward Streets
Video: Stothert says Crossroads project is 'full speed ahead,' but she won't support bond issue
'Fairly old' human skull found in Mills County
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Omaha crash victim, 19, had touched many lives
Firefighters take on 'fully engulfed barn fire'
Council Bluffs school board approves new district headquarters
Officials announce effort to lure more veterans to Nebraska
SB 132nd Street lane closed
Shane Osborn grabs several endorsements
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Omaha area may get 1 inch of rain tonight
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Owners of exotic dance bar deny prostitution allegations
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
A day after Ricketts endorsement, Ted Cruz backs Sasse for Senate
Some city streets remain closed
Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Nebraska GOP candidates unified against naked squirrels
Some of these Nebraska campaigns are tilting pretty far right. At a recent forum, there was a consensus that we need to ban public dancing and clothe naked squirrels in public parks.
Breaking Brad: Inside the mind of a 99-year-old real estate agent
I saw an article about a 99-year-old real estate agent who's still working. “This house is extra special. It has indoor toilets!”
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
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.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com'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 »