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

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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