MOSCOW, Russia — The Kremlin reacted with fury on Tuesday after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Soviet collusion with Nazi Germany led to the outbreak of World War II.
“We categorically disagree with this statement,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, accusing Zelensky of backing the “highly erroneous” position of Poland on the historical events.
The Soviet collaboration with the Nazis remains highly sensitive in the ex-Soviet bloc and frequently crops up in political rhetoric.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and carved up Poland in September 1939 under a secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Nazi invasion prompted Britain and France to declare war on Germany.
While visiting Poland on Monday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp, Zelensky said the Poles “were the first to feel the consequences of the criminal collusion of the totalitarian regimes.”
“This led to the start of World War II and allowed the Nazis to launch the lethal Holocaust machine,” he told a joint briefing with Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.
Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews.
Peskov said Zelensky’s comment had offended “tens of millions” of citizens of Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states that battled against Nazi troops.
“We do not accept this statement. We consider it erroneous and offensive from the point of view of our grandfathers’ memory,” he said.
Zelensky met Putin for the first time in December at a summit in Paris on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, accused Zelensky of betraying the Ukrainians who helped liberate Europe and delivering a blow to Russian-Ukrainian ties.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, told reporters that Zelensky was getting increasingly drawn towards ideas of Ukrainian nationalism.
Last month, Putin accused Poland of colluding with Hitler and contributing to the outbreak of World War II, sparking new tensions between Moscow and Warsaw.