Warsaw, Poland – In a controversial move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has renamed several of the Russian Army’s military units after European cities and places in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Germany and Romania.
The decrees that were signed by Putin on Saturday and made public on Monday claim that the names are intended to “preserve glorious military and history traditions, and to nurture loyalty to the fatherland and military duty among the military personnel”.
Among others, Radio Free Europe reports that the 68th Tank Regiment was renamed after Berlin, the 6th Tank regiment after the Ukrainian city of Lviv, the 933rd Missile Regiment after the Dnipro River in Ukraine, and an army regiment after Warsaw. Other regiments were named after the Belarusian cities of Vitsebsk, Kobryn and Slonim, as well as Romania’s Transylvania region.
This isn’t the first time Putin made such a controversial move. In January, Russia had renamed a Russian air force regiment after Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in a decision supposedly intended to “raise spirit of military obligation” and “preserve holy historical military traditions,” according to The Independent.
This latest move is likely to infuriate people in the countries whose place names were used, where “historic traditions” with Russia are more often than not seen as a reminder of decades of Soviet domination across Central and Eastern Europe. In Poland, Russia is still largely seen as a regional behemoth with expansionist ambitions, and resented as a post-war occupier rather than admired as a wartime liberator.
As Radio Free Europe points out, these new names strongly echo the days under communism. In fact, the 68th Tank Regiment, now called the Zhytomyr-Berlin regiment, had already been renamed after the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr by Stalin in 1944 for its role during World War II.
Academics have argued that Moscow has in recent years made use of such “strategic narratives” of past Soviet glories to present Russia as the historic “saviour of […] Eastern Europe”.
Amidst rising tensions between Russia and NATO, the move appears provocative. Since Russia’s decision to support separatist rebels in Ukraine and to annex the Crimean peninsula in 2014, its European neighbours – Norway, Poland, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – have indeed grown weary of Putin’s intentions, fearing Moscow could make similar moves against their sovereignty. Last month, Russia warned Norway of “consequences” after the Scandinavian country invited the U.S. to double the presence of Marines in the country, while Sweden plans to reestablish conscription to counter a possible threat from Russia.
Earlier this year, Russia had also deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea bordering Poland, as a response to a NATO build-up near its borders and to the number of U.S. weapons deployed in Poland. According to a report published last month, the Polish section of a U.S. missile defence shield over Europe will be completed by 2020.