Image show two maps of Europe. Map on the left shows Europe in 1982, before the break up of the Soviet Union. On the right, Europe in 2006, following the election of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia.
Europe in 1982, before break up of Soviet Union (L). Europe in 2006 (R). Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

If you want to understand why Vladimir Putin’s regime has a big chip on its shoulder, look at a map and find the tiny Russian enclave stranded between Lithuania and Poland. 

Kaliningrad, the only major city in this outpost of Russia on the Baltic Sea, was, prior to the Second World War, the German city of Koenigsberg. You can find a statue there of the town’s most eminent citizen, the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who lived his whole life in Koenigsberg. 

Kant famously formulated the rule for ethical behaviour he called the categorical imperative. 

The categorical imperative stipulates we should at all times behave as though our actions will become the general rule for all of society. In other words, before deciding to steal a loaf of bread we should ask ourselves: what would be the consequence if nobody ever paid for bread and everyone stole it?

Putin doesn’t care much about Kant’s rule these days. 

Or, perhaps he thinks it would be OK if every country in a dispute with a neighbour decided to settle it with guns, missiles and bombs rather than diplomacy and negotiations.

When it comes to ethics, the Putin regime is more attuned to ethical relativism than the Kantian variety. Ethical relativists say right and wrong, or good and bad, are not absolute and universal, but depend on particular circumstances. 

The importance of Kant’s hometown for Russia today has little to do with his categorical imperative, however. The reason the current location of Kaliningrad is a big bugbear for Putin’s regime is because it graphically illustrates how vast the Soviet Union once was and, more important, how far west it once extended. 

At one time, the leaders in the Kremlin could drive to their western border and get a good look at the Unter den linden in Berlin, or, if they peered really hard, the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

At the end of the Second World War, at a conference in Potsdam, Germany, the victorious allies – the Americans, the British and the Soviets – redrew the map of Europe. 

Part of that process involved pushing the borders of the Soviet Union and its immediate neighbour Poland westward. The Soviet Union took over the formerly independent Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and seized a big piece of eastern Romania and a smaller one of Slovakia. 

As for Germany itself, its eastern border was pushed way westward. All of Germany east of a new eastern border formed by the Oder and Neisse rivers, about a quarter of Germany’s erstwhile territory, became part of either Poland or the Soviet Union. 

Prior to the war, Poland had been virtually landlocked, except for what was known as the Polish corridor, which gave it access to the international port city of Danzig (now called Gdansk). 

The Potsdam agreement assigned almost the entire German Baltic coast to Poland, more than 800 kilometres of coastline. But it also gave the Soviets the very eastern end of that coast, which included the city then known as Koenigsberg. 

For the Soviet Union, all this new territory meant it was now bigger and extended further westward than did the old Czarist Russian Empire, even at its zenith. 

And not only did the Kremlin directly rule all of this vast new territory, it saw to it there were friendly governments in all its western neighbours, from Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south.

By contrast, the western border of today’s Russia is far to the east. From that border the current leaders of the Kremlin can barely see Warsaw, let alone Berlin or Paris. 

Not only are the three Baltic states now independent again, so are Belarus, Moldova and, proudly so, Ukraine. As well, on Russia’s southern and eastern flank there are seven more former Soviet republics that are now independent countries. 

That fact frustrates and angers Putin, to a degree far beyond reason.

Lviv, incubator of key human rights concepts

On a current map, Lviv is in western Ukraine. That city has become headquarters for Western media covering Putin’s war. But before the Second World War, Lviv was called Lwow, and it was not in Ukraine. It was in Poland. 

As part of the Potsdam process, the Soviet Union annexed the eastern part of Poland, while Poland got a big piece of Germany. Lviv thus became Soviet territory, nestled in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, which was itself an integral part of the USSR. 

Before the Second World War, Lviv had been a multicultural city, with large populations of Jews, Poles and Ukrainians co-existing mostly peacefully, side by side. Earlier, until the end of the First World War, the city had been the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. During that period, it was known by yet another name: Lemberg. 

Lviv-Lwow-Lemberg was, and is still, home to an old and widely respected university, established in the early 17th century. The law school of that university was the incubator for two central human rights concepts of our times: crimes against humanity and genocide. 

In his book East-West Street human rights lawyer Philippe Sands tells how two jurists who graduated from the law school in Lviv, both Jews, developed those two fundamental concepts.

“Crimes against humanity” was the idea of Hersch Lauterpacht, who spent much of his life in Britain. He was a close adviser to the British legal team that undertook the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, in the years following the Second World War.

Lauterpacht aimed to establish a legal basis for assigning guilt to leaders of nation-states which committed atrocities during wars. His concept allowed Nazi leaders to be tried, convicted, imprisoned and, in some cases, executed.

The other Lviv-educated legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin, who had escaped the Nazis and moved to the U.S., had a more ambitious goal. He wanted to establish the new crime of seeking to eradicate an entire people. Lemkin had seen this happen to the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire and, of course, the Jews and Roma of Europe under the Nazis. 

Lemkin gave this new crime a name: genocide. Unlike Lauterpacht, he did not limit the crime to acts of war. Nor did he limit the possible perpetrators to individual bad actors. He saw genocide as, in some cases, systemic – as the destructive actions of an entire group against another group.

In the run-up to the Nuremberg trials, the U.S. and Great Britain were wholly supportive of Lauterpacht’s concept, but much more dubious of Lemkin’s.

They worried their own histories of colonialism, slavery, racial segregation, and destruction of Indigenous peoples could be characterized as genocide. As a result, the charge of genocide was little used against the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg.

Are we witnessing genocide in Ukraine?

It took more than a generation for the word genocide to become widely accepted as a legitimate moral and legal concept. Tragically, that has not stopped actual genocides from happening, in a variety of forms and places.

Many world leaders are now saying the Russians are currently committing war crimes, or crimes against humanity, in Ukraine. Few have gone so far as to use the stronger and more all-encompassing term genocide, although Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has.

What appear to be the wanton executions of hundreds of unarmed civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha have set off a wave of world-wide outrage. But the Russians are shrugging it off. 

Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissively argued civilian deaths are normal and inevitable in any war – without mentioning his country started this one. 

In the same breath, Russia’s chief diplomat claims the death and destruction in Bucha is, somehow, not real. It is a Ukrainian propaganda ploy, Lavrov says, in a brazen act of diplomatic gaslighting. 

Following the cataclysm of the Second World War, the nations of the world set up the United Nations (UN) as a means to prevent future wars of aggression. 

Right now, Ukraine’s president does not believe the UN is anywhere near to fulfilling its peacemaking vocation.  

President Zelenskyy asks: if the global body cannot intervene in a clear case of illegal invasion, accompanied by a rising toll of vicious and brutal atrocities, of what use is it? He goes so far as to suggest the UN might want to consider abolishing itself. 

Zelenskyy now proposes the world community should convene a Nuremberg-style criminal process to prosecute those responsible for the horror the Russians are inflicting on his people. 

Currently, nobody who opposes Putin has the wherewithal or power to do anything decisive to stop him – except, it seems, the Ukrainians themselves. 

Someday, if the world is lucky enough, there will be a reckoning for the crimes committed during this war of aggression. 

If and when that happens the concepts developed by two legal scholars who studied in Lviv will be front and centre.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...