Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

Reading List – 21st October 2019

Maha Yahya, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, looks at the development of democracy in the middle east since the Arab Spring. She highlights that, with the exception of Tunisia, promises of democratic development have stalled and the autocrat’s bargain – whereby citizens accept a lack of democracy in return for better jobs and living standards – is also failing to deliver. However she suggests that the spirit of protest has been awakened in many of the countries of the region and has brought tangible benefits.

Speaking at a Chatham House event yesterday, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, spoke positively of the changes in his country as regards women and young people dismissing claims that they are cosmetic changes. However he failed to respond to a question asking whether moves would be made towards democracy.

 

Paul Haenle and Sam Bresnick of the Carnegie Endowment argue that although President Trump has made strong noises against China, he has weakened the USA in international terms by abandoning allies in the Pacific and withdrawing his country from key trade partnerships. These, moves, together with the Belt and Road Initiative, have given China the upper hand to assert its dominance. 

 

Stephen M Walt – American professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government – suggests that the US needs to fundamentally change its foreign policy to adopt a strategy of off-shore balancing. 

With no traditional threats to the country (although Professor Walt acknowledges that cyber attacks are a different matter), the USA should slowly begin to focus its efforts on taking on its peer-competitor China through building alliances and partnerships with regional allies. In order to do this, he says the USA should no longer be the world’s policeman and should leave European EU and NATO allies to handle Russia and should not be involved in the Middle East. This would mean adopting a pro-EU stance, remaining part of the JCPOA and not favouring one Middle Eastern country over any other. He suggests that the USA should not be involved in nation-building but use its own liberal values to inspire others.

 

Former US Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns bemoans the current track of American diplomacy under President Trump and says that the country will become weaker on the international stage as a result. He likens the current path to the McCarthy era.

 

EU expansion decision will endanger reforms in Western Balkans

The EU has failed to agree to move onto the next step of enlargement as France, the Netherlands and Denmark have blocked the current hopes of North Macedonia and Albania joining. There have been warnings that this move will endanger liberal reforms in those countries as well as lessen the chances of a full peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

The issue was discussed as part of this week’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. It has been reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happier to see progress made in the case of North Macedonia but he, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, see EU structural reforms as a higher priority and so blocked further discussions before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May.

This decision will have a number of knock-on effects. In North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has a staked a lot on achieving agreements with Greece that resulted in changes including that of the name of his country. That, together with expensive constitutional, economic and political reforms, were all geared towards starting the long process of EU membership. Without the hope of membership, Zaev’s credibility with his electorate will take a tumble and the reform process will likely stall.

Albania has a constitutional crisis of its own already and the country was seen to be less ready for EU membership, but the reform process had been started and will almost certainly now end, significantly endangering anti-corruption efforts and action against organised crime.

The EU decision may also affect the Kosovo/Serbia debate. Both countries had expressed a desire to join the EU, albeit on a slower track than Albania and North Macedonia. One of the key requirements for their membership to progress would be a lasting peace deal and border resolution. There will now be less incentive to make this happen.

And whilst the EU and its member states will continue to be important partners for the countries of the Western Balkans, this decision will leave the door open for stronger ties with other major players. Russia is a traditional ally for Serbia and has major interests in the whole region. Likewise, China is investing heavily as part of its Belt and Road Initiative having put funding into Serbian railways and leasing the port of Piraeus in Greece among other projects.

In reality, the timetable towards EU enlargement may be relatively unaffected by this decision. Completing the different chapters of the acquis communautaire is a lengthy process and could have been stalled in a more diplomatic way had member states wished. The negative effects could have been avoided had North Macedonia alone been given the green light with a warning that formal accession would only take place after the organisation’s structural reforms had been completed. This choice, however, raises major concerns over the credibility of any further enlargement.

 

UPDATE (21st October 2019): North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, apparently furious at the decision of the EU, has called snap elections to allow his country “to decide what path it wants to follow”. The election is set to take place on April 12th 2020.