Soviet Nostalgia and Great Power Aspirations
Ahead to the Past – The World in the Mind of Putin
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It is not often that a national president expounds an official reading of history, but Vladimir Putin did just that on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. His politically charged historical manifesto claims to draw the “real lessons” from that bloody world war. Anyone who wants to understand what makes Putin tick and what it is that he seeks to achieve should read this text carefully. It is a document of historical revisionism and of the old-new great-power ambitions of the Kremlin.
What Putin advocates is nothing less than reverting to the concert of great powers at the end of World War II. His point of reference is 1945, not 1990, hence the agreement on the post-war order reached among the victorious powers and not the European framework for peace that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet empire. He conjures up the spirit of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, images of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill bending over the map of the world. He does not say a word about the Helsinki principles of 1975 or the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. This was no mere trifle. Thirty-two European states, including Russia, as legal successor to the USSR, along with the USA and Canada jointly committed themselves to democracy as the legitimate form of government and to respect human rights in the Paris Charter. The Europe of the future was to be founded on the renunciation of violence and on cooperation, common security and the sovereign equality of all states.
For Putin, these guiding values, which are also reflected in human rights convention (1950) of the Council of Europe, are no longer relevant. Nor does international law figure in the lessons of 1945 for the Russian president. For him, the core of the United Nations is the Security Council and the veto right of the states that were victorious powers 75 years ago, a right that he vehemently defends. And in this is rooted Putin’s claim that no major international political decision involving a conflict should be taken without or against Russia.
Putin makes it crystal clear that he is claiming the role that the Soviet Union used to play for Russia. It was not just nostalgia speaking when he described the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. His ambition is to regain, as far as possible, the power that was lost. In his eyes, the Russian Federation is not only the legal successor state to the USSR, but also its legitimate political heir. He demands the return of Russia to the circle of powerful nations that steer the destiny of Europe and of the world. Though in competition with one another, the rivalry among these nations is limited by their respect for one another’s interests and spheres of influence. Incidentally, the EU does not figure in this new directorate. An even footing with Washington and Peking is what Putin is aiming at.
Putin cites the USSR’s crucial contribution in the fight against Hitler fascism as the basis for Russia’s claim to great power status. Yes, he generously concedes, some credit is due to the British and the Americans as well, but the greatest sacrifices and the pivotal victories were those of the Soviet Union. The “Great Patriotic War” is the central source of the regime’s legitimacy, both internal and external. There is no other source. Communism has fallen into disrepute; the economy is stagnating. Today, Russia has little to show for itself other than oil, natural gas and its military strengths. Pride in the Red Army’s victories, achieved at such great sacrifice, is a balm for the aggrieved Russian soul.
No critical light may be cast on this national narrative. Consequently, Putin defends both the Hitler-Stalin pact and the annexation of the Baltic states. For him, responsibility for World War II lies solely with the Western powers and their policy of appeasement toward Hitler. Poland having worked behind the scenes to scupper an alliance between the Soviet Union and England and France, Stalin was left with no choice but to enter into a pact with the devil. Putin justifies the Red Army’s march into Eastern Poland and the moving of the Soviet border westward as a purely defensive operation aimed at keeping the Wehrmacht as far from Moscow as possible.
That the Soviet Union stopped all of its anti-fascist propaganda overnight, accused the Western powers of warmongering and continued to supply the Third Right with raw materials important to its war effort until June of 1941: all this is swept under the rug. So, too, are the Katyn massacre and the mass deportations in the Baltic republics. The Red Army’s occupation of the countries of Central and East Europe? Nothing other than an act of liberation, in Putin’s view. That the liberation from Nazi tyranny led to a new system of oppression is something he is unwilling to admit. Putin’s excursion into history turns out to be an exercise in imperial historiography.
Putin can see no stain on the glory of the Russian armed forces. In passing, he justifies even the bloody Chechen wars and the bombing campaigns in Syria as the “fight against international terrorism”. He recasts the undeclared war against Ukraine as coming out against “neo-Nazis and Bandera’s successors”. Greater cynicism would be hard to find.
Putin’s offer of a new arrangement among the great powers is a poisoned one. It has the potential to drive a wedge into the EU and NATO, it amounts to relapse, away from a normative order. Within Europe, it is primarily the French president who appears susceptible to Putin’s offers. France, a member in the concert of the great and the powerful – this, too, is dangerous nostalgia. Macron has already launched a strategic dialogue with Moscow and dreams of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. His desire to pull Europe out of the transatlantic alliance is no secret. Putin likes this idea very much. We should not delude ourselves about a European autonomy: without a tie to America to hold it back, Europe would slip even further into the gravitational field of the Kremlin.
Putin’s push for a new Yalta also about the future of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus: Are they to go back to being satellites of the Kremlin, or should the path to Europe remain open? Should we grant the Kremlin the right to veto the European integration of these countries? Any ambiguity on this point is deleterious. The same can be said of the security of Poland and the Baltic states. This can only be ensured by NATO.
Let there be no misunderstanding: a strategic partnership with Russia is very much to be desired. But such a partnership can only come into being on a normative foundation: common security and the renunciation of violence, recognition of the sovereign equality of all European states, respect for human rights. These are principles to which Russia has already committed itself more than once. As long as the Kremlin is unwilling to return to this path, Europe will need a policy towards Russia that combines limited cooperation with the containment of neo-imperial ambitions. This includes responding to Russia’s military build-up in the area of tactical nuclear weapons and to the violation of the INF treaty banning intermediate range missiles. It is imperative that Europe not become vulnerable to military extortion.
At the same time, we should make every effort to support democratic civil society in Russia. There are thousands of non-governmental organisations active on behalf of human rights, environmental protection and social causes, running campaigns against corruption and electoral fraud, independent Internet projects, critical journalists, writers and artists there. They are living testimony to the fact that Russia is not doomed to authoritarian rule in perpetuity. A time of change will come.
Ralf Fücks is managing director of the Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod), a Berlin-based think tank. Before co-founding LibMod, he headed the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the political foundation affiliated with the Green party, for over 20 years.
This article was published first in WELT , 29. June 2020.
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