Soviet Nos­tal­gia and Great Power Aspirations

Putin beim Marsch des Reg­i­ments der Unsterblichen am Tag des Sieges, 9.5.2015, Foto: NickolayV/​Shutterstock

Ahead to the Past – The World in the Mind of Putin

Эту статью можно читать и на русском

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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