President Obama’s team took a subtle shot at Russian President Vladimir Putin by issuing a seemingly inocuous statement on “one of the most horrific man-made tragedies in modern history” — the Holodomor.

“Eighty-three years ago, more than 3 million people in Ukraine died as the result of the merciless policies of Joseph Stalin,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.

“Through the deliberate seizure of Ukrainian land and crops, the Soviet Union caused widespread starvation. Under siege and without access to food, Ukraine — once Europe’s breadbasket — turned into a land of immeasurable human suffering.”

Russia is very sensitive about portrayal of that event and Soviet occupation of Ukraine in general.

The history of Soviet domination of Ukraine has become even more fraught in recent years as Putin annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“Perhaps most insidious is the use of the Soviet historical narrative which portrays the USSR as a liberating power during the Second World War and vanquisher of the Nazis; but not as an occupying power that the West never recognized — a frequent theme on Russian television,” Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic Studies, explained while testifying before the Senate in 2015.

“However, native populations in many European countries see the role of the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War quite differently and therefore view these recitations as a diminishment of their own history of independence.”

In Ukraine, the Holodomor is Ground Zero for that historiographical battle. Putin’s government has fought attempts at the United Nations to label the Holodomor a “genocide,” although the Russian government supported a declaration that it was “a cruel crime of the Soviet regime against its own people” in 2010.

“But that was when Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych was running things in Kiev — and making it clear that he was committed to keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit,” as Cathy Young pointed out last year at The Daily Beast. “Not coincidentally, Yanukovych also halted the campaign for international recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide.”

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But after tension in Ukraine led to violence, a Russian government-owned propaganda site published an article alleging that the Holodomor was a hoax spread by Western powers. “Ukraine is the westward-looking enemy — and the Kremlin rolls out the big lie once again, this time for international consumption,” Young wrote.

Russian leaders aren’t the only politicians who connect contemporary politics in Ukraine to the history of the Holodomor. Obama’s spokesman made a clear analogy between the two in his statement Friday. As Ukrainians have proven to the world time and again, the human spirit is indomitable.

“Even during the darkest times, the Ukrainian people have continued with dignity the struggle for peace, freedom and democracy,” Earnest said. “Today, faced with new threats to these values, Americans stand together with Ukrainians as they bravely defend their territory and democracy.”

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